IMSA: Indianapolis thoughts and observations

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Just four weekends remain in the inaugural TUDOR United SportsCar Championship season following this weekend’s Brickyard Grand Prix at Indianapolis. A few weekend thoughts and observations:

  • Party like it’s 1995: Nearly 20 years after the 1995 Indianapolis 500, that race was discussed when referring to the top two finishers in the race on Friday. Christian Fittipaldi, who co-drove the winning No. 5 Action Express Racing Corvette DP, finished second in that race – what was the Brazilian’s only ‘500 start. Meanwhile the car that finished second, the No. 01 Chip Ganassi Racing with Felix Sabates Ford EcoBoost Riley, featured a driver who crashed out of the lead in that 1995 Indianapolis 500, Scott Pruett, and a co-driver who was all of three months old at the time of the race: Sage Karam. It’s funny how relevant that race has been in 2014, with Jacques Villeneuve having returned to the Indianapolis 500 for the first time this year since winning that day in May, some 19 years ago…
  • Perfect pole parity: In the Prototype and GT Le Mans classes, there has not been a single repeat pole winner this year. The P class is eight-for-eight in different polesitters, with four Daytona Prototype car poles and four P2 car poles. GTLM is seven-for-seven, split among five different manufacturers (Dodge Viper SRT, Porsche, Corvette, BMW, Ferrari). IMSA really couldn’t have done much better than that in terms of outright lap time balance.
  • IMS circuit still favored DPs over a race distance: Like the series’ street races, the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course is more of a point-and-shoot track where torque and horsepower play dividends. So over a race distance, the DPs had the edge over the P2s, which had good single lap speed thanks to their pace in the infield section. Longer fuel stints also aided the DPs. The scorecard reads 6 DP wins to only 2 P2s… however this makes it seem more lopsided than it is. The lap time achievement balance is close, given the aforementioned balance in qualifying results. But given the nature of most circuits over a race distance, it takes a near perfect effort for a P2 to get and stay ahead given the car’s disadvantages.
  • The kids are alright: IndyCar rookie Jack Hawksworth and Indianapolis 500 near rookie-of-the-year Karam put in star turns Friday at IMS. Karam started the No. 01 car, survived a first corner fracas where prototypes were making contact around him, led during a portion of his stint and handed over the car to Scott Pruett all good to go. Hawksworth closed the race in the No. 08 RSR Racing Oreca FLM09 in Prototype Challenge, and hunted down and passed teammate Bruno Junqueira. Not bad at all for the young Englishman in his sports car, multi-class debut, going against one of racing’s most underrated drivers.
  • The paddock/schedule was not alright: There were some frustrating reports I received from those on the ground at IMS, given the paddock layout for the TUDOR Championship and Continental Tire SportsCar Challenge. The TUDOR paddock was split behind the NASCAR/F1 garages and on the East side of the IMS museum – near Turn 2 – while the CTSC paddock was housed behind the suites at pit in. Some 0.8 of a mile each way was the walking distance as measured, and made it something of a headache for anyone needing to spent considerable time in both paddocks. While racing on the track’s “Super Weekend” holds some appeal in terms of a cohesive, unified, NASCAR-owned front, it’s hard not to feel that it could be better for the TUDOR Championship to race as the lead series at IMS in the future – a.k.a. not at 5:30 p.m. on a Friday night.
  • Risi’s big improvement: Behind the race-winning Dodge Viper SRT squad, Risi Ferrari turned the corner with pole from Giancarlo Fisichella and a runner-up finish for he and co-driver Pierre Kaffer in the No. 62 Ferrari F458 Italia. Aided in part by Adjustment of Performance updates, the Ferrari excelled on the twisty IMS circuit and had a rare trouble-free weekend, despite a couple offs in the race.
  • Hard luck for Porsche: The factory Porsche North America squad turned in by far its best effort since the opening two races in Florida on Friday with the Nos. 911 and 912 Porsche 911 RSRs, but engine-related issues forced the leading No. 911 into retirement following a great drive from Richard Lietz and Nick Tandy. The No. 912, driven by Patrick Long and Michael Christensen, made it onto the podium in third. With AoP updates coming for Porsches at Road America including a bigger air restrictor, larger splitter and rear wing, they could well be the favorites there.
  • Audi on the doorstep: With Ferrari, Porsche, BMW and Dodge Viper SRT having scored wins in the GT Daytona class, only Audi and Aston Martin are yet to break through. But Audi is very close. The Paul Miller Racing team has three podiums – including second at Indy with Christopher Haase and Bryce Miller in the team’s No. 48 Audi R8 LMS ultra. Meanwhile the Flying Lizard squad has had a host of near misses and poor luck has struck the Fall-Line Motorsports effort more often than not. PMR posted its best 2013 race at Road America a year ago, finishing fourth in the American Le Mans Series GT class with what had been an older spec Porsche 911 GT3 RSR, and should be better positioned for success this time around.

In two weeks’ time, the series heads to my home track – Elkhart Lake’s Road America – for the next round of the season.

Sauber says it’s ‘soon’ to naming Kaltenborn’s successor

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Sauber F1 Team enters this weekend’s Azerbaijan Grand Prix without a team principal and trying to work ahead on its 2018 preparations, making it a tough weekend for one of Formula 1’s smallest teams.

Sauber team manager Beat Zahnder attempted to explain the team’s managerial structure this weekend in Kaltenborn’s absence and teased when he hoped a decision would be made regarding Kaltenborn’s successor.

“Jorg Zander, the technical director and myself, we’ve been entrusted to run the operation of the team this weekend but this is only temporary,” Zahnder explained during the FIA team principal press conference on Friday.

“It doesn’t change a lot for us because our job is to have two cars running as quickly as possible around the circuit and for me it’s a little bit more media work.”

Asked when he hoped to have a successor named, Zahnder replied, “I hope soon. We were talking to some candidates and I hope we can announce it sooner rather than later.”

Former Renault F1 chief Frederic Vasseur’s name has been floated this week, as have other former F1 team chiefs Dave Ryan and Jost Capito, after Colin Kolles’ name was floated earlier in the week.

Zahnder said he could not explain the insider workings of the team.

“I cannot, no. You’ve seen the official press statement from Mr Picci and it seems that Mr Picci and Mrs Kaltenborn had different views how to operate the company. We shouldn’t forget that it’s not only a race team, it’s a home team as well with 350 people or so, but I cannot give you more information because I’m not actively involved in that decision,” he said.

Sauber is still in the process of not only finishing this year but also preparing for its 2018 switch to Honda power. This is an important change and one that comes amidst the turmoil currently encapsulating McLaren and Honda’s turbulent relationship.

“We have started with the project and there is an exchange of information on the logistical side, on the set-up side and the garages,” Zahnder explained. “We have to organize computers and IT stuff and things like this so the work has started, yes.”

With the two McLaren Hondas set to start from the rear of the grid this weekend, Sauber can at least work to get into Q2 and get further up the order with its pair of Marcus Ericsson and Pascal Wehrlein.

Gutierrez set to ‘explore the feeling of enjoyment in IndyCar’

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ELKHART LAKE, Wis. – Esteban Gutierrez has a better peace of mind for his second Verizon IndyCar Series weekend this year, this weekend’s KOHLER Grand Prix at Road America (Sunday, 12:30 p.m. ET, NBCSN), than his first at Detroit earlier this month.

That’s because he’s now been confirmed for the remainder of the races that Sebastien Bourdais won’t drive, until Bourdais’ return to the No. 18 Dale Coyne Racing Honda, and he has track experience at Road America from both Formula BMW races a decade ago.

“It’s a track that I enjoy a lot. It’s one of my favorite tracks. I have great memories from 2007 when I was racing Formula BMW USA,” Gutierrez reflected. “I was actually fighting my way from the back of the field in one of the races. I got up to second. We finished with a very small margin at the start/finish line. It was a very enjoyable moment, a great race that I have very close in my memory.

“Coming back quite many years after, 10 years after, I’m very, you know, excited to get into an IndyCar. Very powerful, very grippy, really nice racing car. You know, it’s really a nice experience to do every lap in this track.”

Gutierrez had a test day on June 14, which he wasn’t publicly identified for at the test but was always planned following his debut at Detroit.

“Obviously to throw myself into Detroit was quite a challenge, one of the most difficult tracks in the calendar, with no testing, straight in the weekend. I think it was a very interesting experience,” he explained.

“Now that I come to Elkhart Lake with a test behind my belt before the weekend, it’s great. I’m really enjoying a lot. I’m very happy of where I am today, with the challenge I have ahead, with the future ahead.

“I would like to explore more that feeling of enjoyment here in IndyCar. I’m just going to go through it. I’m going to live every moment. I’m going to focus on the present and see what we can do in the future.”

And although his rookie teammate Ed Jones is only nine races into his own IndyCar career, Gutierrez says he’s already been able to learn a lot from him and from Bourdais.

“(There’s) quite a lot,” Gutierrez said he’s learned from Jones already. “And also from Sebastien. I’ve been in contact with him. Been in contact with few drivers to try to get some tips, to get a feeling of what are their thoughts, their experiences, to help me, you know, get quicker into the knowledge of the car, in general, and the series, and the competition here.

“I’ve had a lot of conversations with him were related to the technical side of the car, in order for me to understand how the car is working, how the car is evolving through a weekend. It helped me a lot in Detroit. It’s helping me a lot here. Obviously we had the test which allowed us as a team to prepare better.

“Yeah, race by race, it will be clearer and clearer. But Sebastien is always there involved kind of following all the meetings, following the practice sessions, the qualifyings. Yeah, is great to be in touch. Sebastien is a great driver. I really been following him from the past. So, yeah, we’re here and trying to do my best to adapt quickly to the racing here.”

Both Gutierrez and Jones are IndyCar rookies and as such are feeding off each other to learn.

“It’s all about sharing information after each session. It’s about contributing,” he said. “Obviously he has more experience than me in IndyCar, and he has proven to be quite good here. So Ed, you know, we’ve been always together in the meetings. Obviously me trying to understand what is his way of working through the weekend with the setup of the car.

“In my case, I’m very open, because obviously I have no experience in IndyCar. So been always with a very open approach, trying to get as much information as I can, absorb everything, and learn as much as possible.”

Gutierrez briefly dovetailed into the Formula E contractual situation where he had driven with the Techeetah team. He said there was “really nothing to talk about” and that he enjoyed the experience, but said this was an opportunity he wanted to explore.

What he will be exploring for the first time next week is his first oval test at Iowa Speedway on Tuesday, and he’s excited about that.

“I’m aware that it’s completely different. Fortunately I will have a test on Tuesday to prepare, to get to know the reality of an oval, because you can review a lot of data, you can prepare on the theory, but always, you know, when you get to the reality of driving, it’s a complete different story.

“I’m really looking forward to Tuesday. I’m very sure that I will enjoy it, that I will enjoy that kind of racing. So, yeah, I’m excited to get to know — to expand my racing knowledge and to know how to race in ovals.”

For now he’ll get through this weekend and look to build continuity with the Coyne team and Jones as his teammate.

Risi Competizione confirms multiple race absence from IMSA

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The No. 62 Risi Competizione Ferrari 488 GTE will miss several upcoming IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship races, starting at Watkins Glen International next weekend.

The team has plans to return to the GT Le Mans class later this year, but hasn’t said when.

Risi’s absence was first indicated when IMSA released the Watkins Glen entry list earlier this week. It takes the sole Ferrari in class out of it for a handful of races; the pair of Toni Vilander and Giancarlo Fisichella had a best finish of third so far this season.

“Following an extremely challenging first half of 2017, most recently at the 24 Hours of Le Mans, I have decided to withdraw the Risi Competizione race team from part of the 2017 IMSA season in order to consolidate resources and to reflect on future racing programs,” Team Principal Giuseppe Risi said in a release.

Risi’s crash at Le Mans was with a separate 488 GTE chassis, not its full-season one.

But the IMSA full-season one sustained back-to-back hits at Long Beach and Circuit of The Americas. Then, the brand new car took a beating after Matthieu Vaxiviere came over on top of Pierre Kaffer’s No. 82 car going into a chicane on the Mulsanne Straight.

Kaffer was sore but OK and is in Road America this weekend for Pirelli World Challenge GT action, where he competes in the No. 4 Magnus Racing Audi R8 LMS.

Rossi tops opening practice at Road America

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ELKHART LAKE, Wis. – Alexander Rossi led the opening 45-minute practice session for this weekend’s KOHLER Grand Prix at Road America, in the No. 98 NAPA Auto Parts/Curb Honda for Andretti-Herta Autosport.

The young American has always liked this track, as this was one of the tracks he had past experience on prior to his debut season in IndyCar.

At the 4.014-mile circuit, Rossi posted a best time of 1:43.3285, clear of three Team Penske Chevrolets of Simon Pagenaud, Will Power and Josef Newgarden. Scott Dixon completed the top five.

“It’s early; it’s a good way to start,” Rossi told IndyCar Radio after the session. “We’ve known we had a fast car. We just haven’t executed. We want our first win under our belt.”

Only the top 10 drivers down to Helio Castroneves in 10th were within one second, at 0.9964 of a second.

Eighth-placed Ryan Hunter-Reay brought out an early end to the session with an off-course excursion, beached at Turn 14. He was OK but the session ended a minute or two early.

Robert Wickens, in his first official Verizon IndyCar Series session filling in for Mikhail Aleshin at Schmidt Peterson Motorsports, was 20th at 1:45.6823. That was within a tenth of the returning Esteban Gutierrez at 1:45.6257, for Dale Coyne Racing.

Wickens’ teammate James Hinchcliffe was sixth in this session. Meanwhile Gutierrez’s teammate Ed Jones debuted a new Walter Payton tribute helmet; Payton was Dale Coyne’s former business partner and had his first IndyCar race as co-owner here. The late Chicago Bears running back was, of course, one of the best running backs in NFL history. Jones’ decision to wear a Bears helmet in Elkhart Lake, not far from Green Bay, is a brave one!

Schmidt Peterson Motorsports co-owner Sam Schmidt updated Aleshin’s status when speaking to IndyCar Radio during the session.

“Supposedly, he’s on a flight. He got his visa from Paris. He’s supposed to land in Chicago tonight. We’ll see,” he said.

“Yeah up until yesterday morning we thought Mikhail would come in yesterday, and cruise normal fashion. Then his passport didn’t show up. We didn’t know if a day, two or three days. Called half a dozen guys. It was a bit of a scramble. We already had Robert’s seat, so that was convenient. Who could get here the quickest and get in the car. He hasn’t driven here in 10 years. But he’s getting up to speed quickly.”

Times are below.