IMSA: CTMP thoughts and observations

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The latest TUDOR United SportsCar Championship round from Canadian Tire Motorsport Park is in the books. A few thoughts and observations gleaned from the series’ lone trip north of the border to the former Mosport circuit:

  • Sometimes, a team just dominates. A great stat brought up during the race broadcast was that the combined margin of victory in the Prototype class through the first six races was just over 13 seconds. Sunday’s at CTMP was 7.886 seconds, and that didn’t nearly showcase the level of domination the No. 42 OAK Racing Morgan Nissan car showed all weekend. The P2s were always going to have the edge at a track where better aero and handling trumps outright top speed; as at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca, the type of car best suited to the circuit win.
  • Gustavo Yacaman is one of the stars of the year. Considering many in the sports car world consider Olivier Pla one of the best, most underrated drivers worldwide, the fact his OAK Racing co-driver Gustavo Yacaman has been able to match if not beat his co-driver on outright pace all year has been nothing short of impressive. Plus, in each of the last five races, Yacaman has been sensational to watch. His passing attempts spiced up Long Beach; his battle with Michael Valiante in Monterey was incredible; he was consistent en route to third at Detroit; he drove flawlessly at Watkins Glen and again this weekend at CTMP, where the Colombian was simply a man possessed. After OAK cruelly lost out at the Glen, Yacaman was determined to deliver this weekend and did so with his pole and two excellent stints to start the race. Not a bad recovery in 2014 after his series of accidents a year ago with Michael Shank Racing, and his four years in Indy Lights where he was often good, but not great.
  • Painful weekend for several P class cars. A fire knocked the improving DeltaWing coupe out of action before the race, and an accident did likewise for Marsh Racing. Add Memo Rojas’ recon lap shunt for Chip Ganassi Racing with Felix Sabates and a quarter of the 12-car P class field was already wrecked or sidelined before the race got going. Mercifully Andy Meyrick (DeltaWing) avoided serious injuries, while we wish Boris Said the best in his recovery following his cracked rib diagnosis. Good gesture of the weekend goes to Action Express Racing, which ran Whelen decals on its No. 5 Corvette DP after the Marsh shunt and withdrawal.
  • On the No. 01’s actual starting time. While true to the letter of the rulebook, CGR’s start after Rojas’ pre-race shunt was still an eyebrow raiser for me. Here’s the rule: Rule 45.4.3. (TUSC) A Car not starting the race on time and first driven to the pit exit more than one hour after the start of the race must request permission to join. The team requested and received permission to start, as the race had just passed the one-hour mark when the No. 01 Ford EcoBoost Riley was ready to return to the track. I’m all for last-minute heroic repair efforts – the Falken Porsche blowing an engine in Sebring morning warmup and then making it to pit lane with a new one in 2012 still stands out – but so long as you make the grid within a reasonable amount of time, say maybe no more than a lap or two after the actual green flag. This one just seemed off. If you don’t start, you don’t start would make a bit more sense for future rules.
  • American pride in GT Le Mans. Four straight wins for Jan Magnussen and Antonio Garcia have seen the No. 3 Corvette C7.R establish itself at the front of the manufacturer-driven class, and the Dodge Vipers have been on a roll the last two races as well. The new (old) livery for the Vipers sees the red battling the yellow once again at the front of the field… it’s glorious.
  • Meanwhile, what happened to Porsche? A pair of wins in the 36 hours of Florida (Rolex 24 at Daytona and Mobil 1 Twelve Hours of Sebring) seem a distant memory for the factory Porsche North America squad, who between the Nos. 911 and 912 RSRs haven’t scored a single podium finish between them in the last four races. The Porsche is on par performance-wise with the BMW, but the German manufacturers are lagging that tiny bit behind the Corvette and Viper at the moment.
  • Porsche on Porsche violence. Credit Jeroen Bleekemolen for taking a deserved victory in the No. 33 Riley Motorsport Dodge Viper SRT GT3-R in GT Daytona, but it’s hard not to feel for Kevin Estre in the No. 73 Park Place Motorsports Porsche 911 GT America. Estre was merely minding his own business while trying to stay out of the way of the faster GTLM cars through the twists and turns of the circuit, but got bumped by Michael Christensen in the No. 912 Porsche to allow Bleekemolen a hole to stick the Viper through. It’d be one thing if it was a Prototype lapping through, but a fellow car from the same manufacturer affecting a similar car in GTD? Awkward.
  • No cautions… no PCs… it’s a funny coincidence. Post-race after I noted this was the third TUDOR Championship race this year to run caution-free, several people noted there were not any PC cars this race. Indeed, this is true, and indeed, this was also the case at the two other caution-free races at Long Beach and Monterey. Having said that, and although the PC class has come in the crosshairs this year for a number of accidents, it’s not that the fact there were no PC cars at CTMP meant there were no cautions. It merely meant drivers in all of P, GTLM and GTD kept their heads screwed on straight through traffic for two hours and 45 minutes of clean racing. Remember, PC was not the sole cause of cautions at Daytona, Sebring, or Watkins Glen.
  • Remo Ruscitti wins the weekend undercard. The talented young Canadian from Vancouver co-drove the ST class-winning Porsche Cayman in Saturday’s Continental Tire SportsCar Challenge race, then swept the pair of IMSA Cooper Tire Prototype Lites races in his first two starts in that series. Remember the name going forward.
  • Commercials out the wazoo. Having been to the first five TUDOR Championship races on site this year through Detroit, I hadn’t had the opportunity to watch purely from my couch, TV in front of me and thus feel the experience of a fan or series stakeholder who might not be able to watch on site. I didn’t see too much of Watkins Glen as it and the IndyCar race from Houston ran concurrently. However for CTMP, to put it mildly, it was difficult to follow the action with all the frequent barrage of adverts that ran almost every two minutes. Unofficial analysis from Twitter user @BadBoyVettes revealed these numbers.  For the positive future direction of the championship, I hope this is something that improves down the road.

Anyway, that in the books, the next round for the championship is at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in two weeks on Friday, July 25.

NHRA: John Force Racing won its 2,500th Funny Car round at Gainesville

Front, from left: Co-crew chiefs Jason McCulloch and Jon Schaffer, John Force, crew chief Mike Neff. (Photo Credit: Gary Nastase and Auto Imagery)
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It wasn’t just a career-best elapsed time run and a final round victory for John Force at last week’s NHRA Gatornationals and Gainesville. It was also the John Force Racing team’s 2,500th Funny Car round win, as well.

The full release is below:

John Force’s Funny Car victory Sunday in the NHRA Gatornationals in Gainesville, Fla., was memorable for many reasons, including yet another milestone over the team’s 40-year existence in the NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series.

After winning all four rounds, and coupled with Robert Hight’s first-round victory, the team achieved the 2,500-round victory threshold for Funny Cars. Force’s final-round win over rookie Jonnie Lindberg sealed the deal.

JFR’s first round victory was June 1, 1979, when Force defeated Tom McEwen at the Cajun Nationals in Baton Rouge, La. Force himself has accounted for just over half of those 2,500 Funny Car round victories, as he now stands at 1,269, with six round wins this season. He defeated Del Worsham, Jack Beckman, and Tommy Johnson Jr. before beating Lindberg on Sunday.

Even more impressive is that JFR’s 2,500 NHRA Funny Car round wins account for more than 20 percent of wins all-time in the class.

“It was the reign of terror that started it all, with Austin Coil, Bernie Fedderly and John Medlen,” Force said. “It was really about a group of guys – it wasn’t about me. I just wrote the checks, but I got to drive one of the baddest hot rods on the planet. We won just about everything.

“But those days are gone now. John Force wants to stay in the game, and now we’ve got Robert Hight, my daughter Courtney, young Austin Prock is coming,” he continued. “I’m really excited about this. We put the band back together. Mick Jagger of the Rolling Stones said life’s a drag, but today, life’s not a drag – it’s a drag race, and we won.”

Winning races and elimination rounds is one of the things John Force has done best. Overall, nine drivers have won Funny Car rounds with JFR. The total includes:

  • John Force 1,269
  • Robert Hight 375
  • Tony Pedregon 292
  • Courtney Force 134
  • Mike Neff 118
  • Gary Densham 108
  • Ashley Force Hood 105
  • Eric Medlen 95
  • Phil Burkart Jr. 4

Hight added to his total Sunday, besting Bob Tasca III in the first round with career-bests in time and speed, and has two round wins this season. Courtney Force won her first three rounds of the season at Pomona, making it to the final round.

“It’s amazing, but what’s really amazing is when you look at who has most of those wins,” Hight said. “John Force’s records – he’s so far out in front of everybody else – it’s not even achievable. With the competition level and everything else there is today, these records we keep getting will never, ever be broken. I was lucky enough to get the 200th victory for John Force Racing at Topeka (2011), and that was pretty exciting.”

To do it at Gainesville, Hight said, was special. In the 1990s, for example, Force participated in 37 rounds out of a possible 40, and won 33 of those 40 rounds. He just kept winning … and winning … and winning.

“He’s had good luck at Gainesville,” Hight said. “But I take away from this that all three of our Funny Cars are running good, and we’re not searching for faster cars but right where we want to be. We just need to get a little consistency. I’m just happy to be a little part of those 2,500 round wins. We have three good cars now, and we’re going to get a lot more wins.”

The milestone is more than just a number. It represents tireless efforts by drivers, crew chiefs, team members, fabricators, shop workers, and office staff who have worked with Force since the 1970s.

“If you look at the Tony Pedregons that drove for me, the Eric Medlens, the Gary Denshams, Robert Hight, my girls – if you go down that list, they were all part of that. It wasn’t just about me,” Force said. “I’ve done well in the sport, because I’ve lived it and loved it. I give 110 percent to my sponsors, never 100 percent. We overdeliver, you have to.

“With the cast of characters we have, we’re going to keep hitting them with all we’ve got.”

The team earned its 2,500th round victory across all NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series classes last year. Including the team’s Top Fuel dragster – piloted by Brittany Force and sponsored by Monster Energy – the team’s round victory total stands at 2,593. Brittany Force added another Top Fuel round victory Sunday, and stands at 93 in her career.

The fourth round of the NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series, the NHRA Nationals, is March 31-April 2 at The Strip at Las Vegas Motor Speedway in Nevada. John Force Racing has won five races at the spring race in Las Vegas, most recently with John Force running the table in 2015.

F1 on NBC crew previews the upcoming 2017 season

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It’s a new season of Formula 1 that kicks off this weekend with the Australian Grand Prix. All times and streaming details for the new year can be found here, to be watched on NBCSN and the NBC Sports App.

As NBC Sports Group prepares for its fifth season of coverage, all of the broadcast team have made various rounds previewing the season to come (here’s a link to the group’s upcoming live theater presentation at Sellersville Theater next week).

Lead lap-by-lap announcer and host Leigh Diffey spoke to Autoweek in a Q&A, linked here. A quick take on the excitement of the new season is below:

“These cars are faster, will be harder to control in the corners, and will place a high physical demand on the drivers. I can’t wait to see what these cars do these drivers after 58 laps around Albert Park. That’s how I would sell fans on what we’re going to see this season,” Diffey said.

Analysts Steve Matchett and David Hobbs have also previewed the seasons, with both their interviews linked below.

Matchett’s interview with Todd McCandless for Formula1Blog.com is linked here. Hobbs’ interview with Steve Zautke on 105.7 FM The Fan’s (WSSP-Milwaukee) The Final Inspection Show is linked here.

F1 on NBC pit reporter and insider Will Buxton checks in with The Marshall Pruett Podcast, linked here.

Coverage this weekend begins with a live stream of free practice one airing at 9 p.m. ET on Thursday night via the NBC Sports App, which will air at midnight on Friday on NBCSN leading straight into live coverage of free practice two at 1 a.m. ET on NBCSN. The full time breakdown is below.

Hinchcliffe’s DTM test with Mercedes an ‘amazing blast of a lifetime’

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The second half of the James Hinchcliffe and Robert Wickens “ride swap” took place last week at the Vallelunga circuit in Italy, as Hinchcliffe stepped aboard Wickens’ usual No. 6 HWA AG Mercedes-AMG C63 DTM car for his first few laps in the tin-top beast.

After shaking off a tough end to what had been a dynamic weekend for both himself and the No. 5 Arrow Electronics Schmidt Peterson Motorsports Honda team at the Verizon IndyCar Series’ season opener in St. Petersburg – he’d led early but was caught out on a yellow flag timing and dropped back – Hinchcliffe arrived in Italy on Wednesday to prepare for his run in the DTM car. Wickens tested Hinchcliffe’s IndyCar prior to the St. Petersburg season opener.

The ordinary challenges of getting acclimated to a new car – getting a seat made and adapting to the different driving position – were erased because of a quick and easy fit right into Gary Paffett’s seat.

“It’s funny when we saw the three-week gap between St. Petersburg and Long Beach we thought there’d be down time, and that clearly hasn’t been the case,” Hinchcliffe laughed when speaking to NBC Sports.

“I flew over to arrive a day early, meet the team, and get the lay of the land for the following day. Luckily I fit right into Gary Paffett’s seat. There were very few adjustments needed and it was pretty straightforward. It led into an amazing blast of a time the following day, to rip around Vallelunga.”

The two-hour session that followed saw Hinchcliffe learn a lot, in what is a rare opportunity for North American drivers to have a chance to race in a DTM car.

Hinchcliffe has had some closed-top car experience, but limited outings in either Mazda’s previous Lola Multimatic chassis or Mazda RT24-P prototypes and the Mazda RX-8 aren’t quite comparable to what he saw in the Mercedes.

“Yeah I’d done the RX-8 back in ’12 and the prototype off and on, so it was a very different feel,” he explained. “The seating position is very unique, sitting back in the center. The visuals are very different. Very wide. I think I missed most apexes in right-hand turns the first couple laps, getting used to it.”

But with Wickens as his de facto engineer and driving coach, Hinchcliffe quickly got the hang of it for what would be an intense couple hours.

He’d have a mix of running qualifying simulations, long runs to see how the tires degrade and just general pushing once he got the hang of it. Hinchcliffe being a professional race car driver, it didn’t take long.

“They’ve done such a good job here; you there’s a lot of money spent to make the car magic, and that’s what they’ve done,” Hinchcliffe said. “The tires were very different. We had tire warmers, then did quali sims, did a long run and saw what the (tire) deg could be like. For only two hours of running, it was a pretty nice test.”

“We wanted each other to have a blast,” he added of Wickens’ input and advice. “At Sebring, I gave him some pointers, and we did a track lap in the rental cars. He did the same thing here.

“He’d just been there testing. He did a baseline run in the morning to dial the car in. He was great. He was my engineer for the test, to be honest. He’d pull out the laptop and show data comparisons; look for what to do different and better. It was a lot of fun.”

Hinchcliffe had always tried to keep DTM on his radar from afar, watching the races he could while trying to get to at least one per year. The same goes the other way for Wickens, who tries to make it to at least one IndyCar race per year too, and fully enjoyed his own day in Hinchcliffe’s car.

“When it got announced, I had a bunch of guys say they’d had a chance to test a DTM car. I understand now why it’s one of the most fun series,” he said.

“I’ve followed it more closely with Robbie driving. Having had a taste of the machinery, now you get it even more.”

Formula 1 2017 team preview: Sauber

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Rounding out MotorSportsTalk’s team-by-team preview ahead of the new Formula 1 season, we look at Sauber, the minnow team which bounced back from years of instability to find some strength in 2016.

The arrival of new owners Longbow Finance gave Sauber the chance to rebuild and recruit after a number of losses in the preceding years, while Felipe Nasr’s charge to ninth in Brazil offered a boost in prize money as the team jumped above Manor to P10 in the constructors’ championship.

Sauber now heads into 2017 looking to continue its recent gains, with the new faces at Hinwil eager to make an impact. The goal is now to thrive, not survive.

DRIVERS

9. Marcus Ericsson (Sweden)
94. Pascal Wehrlein (Germany)

CAR

Sauber C36

ENGINE

Ferrari 061

TEAM CHIEFS

Monisha Kaltenborn (CEO/team principal)
Jörg Zander (technical director)

MONTMELO, SPAIN – MARCH 08: Pascal Wehrlein of Germany driving the (94) Sauber F1 Team Sauber C36 Ferrari on track during day two of Formula One winter testing at Circuit de Catalunya on March 8, 2017 in Montmelo, Spain. (Photo by Dan Istitene/Getty Images)

What went right in 2016: Sauber may have only scored two points, but it both survived the year and was able to secure some much-needed financial backing that kept the team in business. The on-track performances were what we’d expect from a backmarker team, filled with a number of highlights. Marcus Ericsson’s performances through the year were of particular note in the latter half of the season, despite the Swede going under the radar.

What went wrong in 2016: Sauber’s struggles still left its drivers unable to compete on-track, particularly in the run-up to the takeover when updates for the car were hard to find. Sauber failed to get anywhere near the midfield runners in the dry, but again, it perhaps could not have been expected to given the circumstances.

What’s changed for 2017: A number of new faces are at Sauber following an extensive recruitment process. Ex-Audi LMP1 technical chief Jörg Zander has joined the team, while former Haas strategist Ruth Buscombe arrived last fall and is a big, big asset on the pit wall. Pascal Wehrlein has also been signed from Manor, replacing Nasr after his backing fell through, but the team will be racing with the 2016-spec Ferrari power unit. That won’t help come the end of the year.

What they’ll look to accomplish in 2017: In all honesty, it’s hard to see Sauber finishing anywhere but last this year. The rest of the field simply has resources that are too deep to give the Swiss team much chance. Early gains can be made in the first few races when the impact of a year-old power unit will be felt less; some points would be good. But really, this is again a year to battle on and continue to fight for a better future.

MONTMELO, SPAIN – FEBRUARY 27: Marcus Ericsson of Sweden driving the (9) Sauber F1 Team Sauber C36 Ferrari on track during day one of Formula One winter testing at Circuit de Catalunya on February 27, 2017 in Montmelo, Spain. (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)

MST PREDICTIONS

Luke Smith: Sauber can’t really expect much this year. It’s great that the team is on its feet again, and some of the personnel it has on board gives it strength. But the rest of the pack can simply outspend it. The only team it can get close to this year is Haas, I think, and that’s only if the American team gets things seriously wrong this year. P10 in the constructors’ championship with a couple of points – let’s say picked up by Ericsson early in the year – is the ceiling for Sauber.

Tony DiZinno: It’s hard to think of Sauber as the underdog and last team because they’ve been here 25 years, their reputation is of overachieving and they’ve given so many young drivers their start. Yet with Manor’s absence, it’s Sauber that enters as the 10th place team from 2016, but determined to advance from that this season. Marcus Ericsson has become that dependable, career midfielder as the Swede looks to his fourth season. More pressure is on Pascal Wehrlein, the Mercedes junior passed over by his manufacturer to replace Nico Rosberg and by Force India to replace Nico Hulkenberg. Ericsson may not be as easy a target to beat as Wehrlein might think. A couple points finishes should occur for this team and if they can get to eighth or ninth in the constructor’s points, it’ll have been a much better year.

Kyle Lavigne: With a year-old Ferrari power unit, Sauber should have strong reliability. Whether or not the car has the pace to bring them up the grid is another matter. They languished near the bottom of the time sheets on multiple days of testing, but they didn’t seem to experience reliability problems. That trait could prove very beneficial. As hard as it is to believe, McLaren is likely their closest rival as 2017 begins. And, with McLaren struggling with a car that is both slow and unreliable, Sauber has a chance to leapfrog them, so long as their car keeps going.