IMSA: Road America thoughts and observations

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Much to recap from the IMSA weekend at Road America… so here we go:

  • Kudos to IMSA for prompt, early schedule release: IMSA President/COO Scott Atherton noted during his comments to stakeholders Sunday morning that the future direction and confidence of the series is crafted, in part, by how early the next year’s schedule is released. Fair to say that a mid-August release at Road America – with no plans for change unlike a year ago when the much-derided PC/Prototype Lites race in Kansas was added after the initial schedule reveal – more than lives up to that Atherton statement. Big props to IMSA and the tracks for getting this done and out so soon.
  • About the schedule: The TUDOR Championship schedule is close to perfect. Sure, you’ll have people clamoring for Mid-Ohio or other such courses, but if it doesn’t make business sense for the series, it ain’t gonna happen. The Indianapolis and Kansas draw downs make sense for the reasons Atherton identified. The Continental Tire SportsCar Challenge schedule, by contrast, does leave some room for concern. In three months from Sebring March 20 to Watkins Glen June 27, the series races only once, May 2 at Monterey. That does teams no favors… neither does the run of five race weekends in nine weeks from the Glen June 27 through VIR August 22. Taking care of Continental Tire, a strong series partner, and the teams should have provided them more running time, or at least better-spaced running time.
  • The BoP conundrum: The fact of the matter is, almost no one in the paddock is happy about the current BoP situation – and yet looking from pure data (some great stuff here from Ben Wedge, an engineer, over at NASportscar), it’s really hard to see how IMSA can get it any better given outright lap times are close, but again achieved in different ways. Road America, like most tracks on both this year’s and next year’s schedule – is a high horsepower track, heavy on straights, and that almost universally favors the higher powered, and higher torqued, Daytona Prototypes. The P2 cars may have a shot at pole but have none in the race – it was almost sinister to see how quickly their restart leads were erased. In Prototype anyway, DP teams have the clear pace advantage, and several times this year the Extreme Speed and OAK P2 teams have ran perfect races only to be denied victories (yet an HPD restrictor change of +0.3 mm has left the Nissan-powered Morgan from OAK without much of a chance). You could say the same for DP teams at Mosport or even Monterey. By trying to please everyone, almost no one in the P class is winning as a result of this situation.
  • Shank, Marsh shake bad luck: On-track anyway, it was refreshing to see the Michael Shank Racing and Marsh Racing squads achieve season-best results of second and fourth. You’ll look in the above bullet point and say, “Hey, TDZ, they’re both DPs – of course they should finish that high!” Ah, but it was brilliant strategy on Shank’s part for Ozz Negri and John Pew, and a clean drive from Eric Curran and Burt Frisselle at Marsh, plus avoiding the pitfalls that plagued others in the P class that led to their results. Ideally more to come, words-wise, on these two this week.
  • The DeltaWing’s 100% Road America finishing record: There was some internal joking in the media center depending what shirt you were wearing of, “Hey, let’s run every race at Road America!” One team that might be in favor of that is the DeltaWing Racing Cars squad – which unfortunately has this bizarre stat: it’s finished both its starts at Road America, and hasn’t finished any other race besides it in either 2013 or 2014. It’s a developmental project and the problem with that is, every time the car goes on track, it’s testing new components. In this week’s case, as a year ago, the car’s lightweight, low-drag concept paid dividends – it was the outright fastest car in a straight line (176 mph speed trap average, per NASportscar) and would have jumped ahead of even the DP cars had the six cautions not flown. Eighth overall and sixth in P was the result on paper, and like in 2013, it could have been even better for the Tim Keene-led squad, with drivers Andy Meyrick and Katherine Legge. The car’s unique shape (see above) also contributed to one of the weekend’s funnier moments on social media….
  • It’s about time to end The Scott Mayer Experience: A disclaimer first, sports car racing has and always will involve gentlemen drivers… so long as they are of a reasonable ability level. Sadly, Scott Mayer rarely is able to achieve even that. A driver who runs eight to nine seconds off his co-driver per lap – in this case, James Hinchcliffe, who was guest-starring in a DP for the first time in eight years, in a car that hadn’t turned a racing wheel on track since Sebring – is hazardous, a liability, and, as we saw on Lap 3, unfortunately able to impact the race. Mayer ran wide exiting Canada Corner and rather than leave enough room to the inside to allow Duncan Ende’s PC car through, Mayer appeared to come back across the road, slam Ende into the wall and take both cars out of the race. Look, racing accidents happen all the time, but part of the problem for this particular incident was that Mayer had dropped 15+ seconds behind the other P class cars in two laps – which is staggering to think about – and fell directly into the clutches of the PC leaders. Ende and Bruno Junqueira got jobbed. To his credit, Mayer actually won the GRAND-AM Rolex Series race at Road America last year by keeping his car clean and not so woefully off the pace in his stint, but it was the drive of co-driver Brendon Hartley that delivered that win for that pairing. Hartley is now a Porsche factory driver, and in my opinion that drive had a lot to do with it. Mayer’s likely the only driver in history to have ever failed Indianapolis 500 rookie orientation twice, and it’s time for IMSA to send a message and sit him down before he causes serious injury to either himself or someone else. Sorry, but it has to be said.
  • Along the driving standards note… How in the hell did the driver(s) of the No. 4 Honda Civic ST class car in Saturday’s Continental Tire SportsCar Challenge race manage to take out six cars (and could well had been more if not some evasive driving) on Lap 1 and nearly another two later in the race, and avoid a single penalty? Here’s the Lap 1 shunt in screen cap form and here’s an on-board from Jon Miller’s No. 87 Porsche Cayman that shows him taking evasive action after the Civic’s escapade, again.
  • I think they just threw another yellow: Six of them in a two-hour, 45-minute race is hard to enjoy. It made for quite a choppy day at the office.
  • And another thing to consider before 2016: The class structure announcement, where PC continues through 2016 and FIA GT3 specs come to GT Daytona that year, sounds good on paper… but then you begin to wonder about how this will be achieved from a technical point of view, especially given the angst that’s currently occurring in the P class. Right now, the PC class struggles in top-end speed against both GT classes, but can gain their time in the corners. GT3 cars, in FIA GT3-spec, can be faster than GTE spec cars; in part, this is why they were not adopted for GTD to begin with, and instead the class features spec elements like a spec rear wing, among others. We’ll see how this comes together from a technical standpoint over the next couple years; assume we’ll hear more about restrictors on this front.
  • A final thought: A cousin of mine who has worked in racing for more than a decade on the production side attended Road America as a fan this weekend and had these conclusions: “Why were there so many cautions? Why do they take so long? Why are there so many classes?” Considering he gets racing, that’s a problem. A family discussion of 12 of us should not require 30 minutes and two experts to explain how it works, and end with the other 10 offering blank stares. But that is where we sit right now. This is why, as I’ve said before, sports car racing is confusing, even if you work in it.

Next up for the TUDOR United SportsCar Championship is the PC/Lites and GTLM/GTD split races at Virginia International Raceway on August 22-24; for the P class, it’s off until Circuit of the Americas on Sept. 20.

Pop stars and fast cars: Taylor Swift plays Formula One

COLOGNE, GERMANY - JUNE 20:  Taylor Swift performs live on stage during 'The 1989 World Tour' night 2 at Lanxess Arena on June 20, 2015 in Cologne, Germany.  (Photo by Sascha Schuermann/Getty Images for TAS)
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AUSTIN, Texas (AP) With their red, white and blue tutus and Taylor Swift t-shirts, Rachel Emling and Mikala Crews were everything Formula One wanted at the U.S. Grand Prix: young fans who would travel across the country for a mix of pop stars and fast cars.

Tens of thousands packed into the Circuit of the Americas on Saturday night for Swift’s only concert of the year at Formula One’s only race on American soil.

Formula One’s goal in booking Swift was to hook a new generation of fans to their sport in America, long considered an untapped market for the global racing series. Landing fans like Emling and Crews, NASCAR fans from Jacksonville, Florida, was exactly what they hoped for. They came for the concert and love the cars.

“We’ve been watching a little bit. It’s cool,” said 20-year-old Emling, who said they’ll return for Sunday’s race. “We like racing.”

“It’s different. There are so many people here for the race. It’s a good mix,” Crews said.

The race weekend scheduled her show after Saturday qualifying and before Sunday’s race. One group that will be watching is Liberty Media, the American group that is taking over Formula One’s commercial entity and will be looking for ways to grow the sport. Track president Bobby Epstein had predicted as many as 40,000 would be lured in by Swift.

The weekend is a big opportunity for the singer as well. Race officials hope the entire weekend will draw about 250,000 people with Swift rumored to soon release a new album. And she’s not alone in the music lineup. Usher and The Roots were scheduled to play at the track after the race Sunday night.

But Saturday night belonged to Swift.

“This show is really important because we have people from all over the world,” she told the crowd. “Thank you for that.”

After Saturday’s qualifying ended, young girls with their parents and packs of young women started filing into the stadium. They stood in line at food and drink vendors alongside the die-hard race fans dusty from sitting all day in the grass berms around the track.

Charlene Frollo of Austin brought her daughter in a gaggle of girls, all aged 9 or younger. As a group, they wore pink and white “Swiftie” shirts Frollo had designed herself. They arrived well after the day’s main event on the racetrack but still got to see some of the support races and hear the cars growling around the circuit.

“It was fast. It was like `RRRRRRRR,”‘ said 8-year-old Brie Bauman.

Would they like to see more?

“Yeah, I guess so,” said 7-year-old Avery Frollo.

Charlene Frollo said her husband and sons will be coming back for the Sunday race, but was glad the girls got to experience something new.

“We had a second to show them the cars. Now they know about Formula One cars and they know now this is the only track in the United States, which is kind of big deal so close in our backyard. It’s wonderful for them to come here for the concert and see the bigger world out there,” Charlene Frollo said.

Don Burger, a Formula One fan from San Antonio, brought his 22-year-old daughter who wanted to see Taylor Swift. She’s not a racing fan but he sees a twinkle of interest after getting her out to the track.

“She’s stands it when I put it on TV at home,” Burger said. “I think she’s a little more interested than she was before. She flipped through the program. She told me the other day, ‘I’m actually looking forward to the racing, too’.”

As for the Formula One drivers, some would like to see Swift. Others plan to skip the show the night before they race.

“I’m going to try to. I know Taylor a little bit. She’s amazing. I’m a massive fan of hers,” said Mercedes driver Lewis Hamilton, the two-time defending Formula One champion.

Not Romain Grosjean. The Haas F1 driver planned to get away from the track.

“I like to have a very quiet dinner and a glass of red wine. I’m French,” Grosjean said.

Vettel, Raikkonen disappointed as Ferrari struggles in USGP qualifying

AUSTIN, TX - OCTOBER 21: Sebastian Vettel of Germany driving the (5) Scuderia Ferrari SF16-H Ferrari 059/5 turbo (Shell GP) on track during practice for the United States Formula One Grand Prix at Circuit of The Americas on October 21, 2016 in Austin, United States.  (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)
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Sebastian Vettel and Kimi Raikkonen were left disappointed as Ferrari struggled in qualifying for the United States Grand Prix in Austin, Texas on Saturday, finishing over a second off the pole position lap time.

Ferrari currently ranks third in the Formula 1 constructors’ championship, but remains hopeful of breaking its winless run in 2016 and beating Red Bull to second in the final standings.

However, Raikkonen and Vettel were unable to jump ahead of either the Mercedes or Red Bull drivers in qualifying at the Circuit of The Americas, finishing fifth and sixth respectively in Q3.

Perhaps the most concerning statistic to come out of qualifying was that neither driver was able to finish within a second of pole-sitter Lewis Hamilton, suggesting Ferrari remains far away from its breakthrough victory in 2016.

“Obviously we cannot be pleased with where we finished today, looking at the time difference to the front,” Raikkonen said.

“We did what we could, but our position on the grid is far from ideal. This is the reality today and now we have to be stronger in the race.

“Tomorrow is going to be a long race, the long run was not too bad, so I expect the car we had today to be better tomorrow. For sure we are going to do our best and hopefully we are going to have a strong race.”

“Qualifying was not so good, hopefully the race will go better,” Vettel added.

“Surely we can try and look at different things, learn from today, go forward, and for sure we are not pleased with the gap to the cars ahead. It was not the best session for me: overall it was OK, the car felt fine, but in the end we were not just quick enough.

“For sure in Q3 I could have done a slightly better lap, but at the end of the day obviously we are missing a bit compared to the cars in front, so I think tomorrow could be a different day.

“For tomorrow we’ll see, there’s always a chance to outsmart the people but I think we have to react on the fly. The strategy is set for the beginning, in terms the tires to start the race with, but we kept some new tire sets, so we’ll see.

“It could be an interesting race: tire degradation is always important, it could be playing a big role tomorrow.”

The United States Grand Prix is live on NBC and the NBC Sports app from 2:30pm ET on Sunday.

F1 in the U.S.: Constant change remains the norm for now

AUSTIN, TX - OCTOBER 21: Max Verstappen of the Netherlands driving the (33) Red Bull Racing Red Bull-TAG Heuer RB12 TAG Heuer leads Daniel Ricciardo of Australia driving the (3) Red Bull Racing Red Bull-TAG Heuer RB12 TAG Heuer on track during practice for the United States Formula One Grand Prix at Circuit of The Americas on October 21, 2016 in Austin, United States.  (Photo by Clive Mason/Getty Images)
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AUSTIN, Texas – In a country where more circuits have hosted Grands Prix than in any other in Formula 1 history, the one constant for F1 in the United States is the lack of constant stability, and instead, the continuation of change.

The story is no different in 2016 as F1 returns to Circuit of The Americas for the fifth time, with the track now having established a foothold on the schedule as the F1 world around it – and the event itself – keeps evolving to meet consumer demands.

There are, of course, several big changes that have occurred since this time 12 months ago in Austin.

On the grid, as we’ve covered extensively both throughout this year and this weekend, the arrival of Haas F1 Team on the grid has caused a stir and been a welcome story line throughout the year.

While having an American driver with Haas would be nice, it’s something team owner Gene Haas and team principal Guenther Steiner have said repeatedly that it isn’t required.

The departure of said American driver, Alexander Rossi, from the grid, has been an unfortunate side effect this year. You’d like to see Rossi have had a chance to grow in the sport, for how long he worked to get to F1 from 2009 through to his eventual five Grands Prix last season with Manor.

Still, Rossi’s happy where he is now and actually in with a shout at winning. It speaks volumes of the expectation difference where he’s at in the Verizon IndyCar Series with Andretti-Herta Autosport that 12th there is considered a disappointment, while the 12th he achieved last year at COTA was viewed as an incredible result… even with no World Championship points attached.

On the business scale, there’s been the Liberty Media takeover of the sport, an American company with the usual big ideas and bluster meant to take the sport forward. The challenge – as ever – remains converting those ideas into actions, and getting the necessary support of the paddock at large to pull them off.

And then there’s Circuit of The Americas itself, in its fifth year but continuing to work to keep an audience going here. Near perfect weather this weekend should help draw a crowd that COTA Chairman Bobby Epstein wants to see as the second-highest overall number in five years, trailing only the 2012 race debut.

The concerts attracted this weekend should be the big hitters. Taylor Swift performs her only scheduled show of the year on Saturday, with the Usher and The Roots as a great get for Sunday, and only after they were drafted in at the eleventh hour following the late departure of The Weeknd from, well, the weekend.

Taking it point-by-point, here’s the breakdown of what all those elements mean for F1 in the U.S., 2016 edition:

Haas’ high hopes on home soil

“We had a lot of fans on pit road yesterday and it was really heartwarming to see the enthusiasm that they all displayed, wanting to get autographs and shake our hands and wish us well,” Gene Haas said during the FIA Friday Press Conference.

“That was great. The city of Austin is a very welcoming city. The people are friendly; the food is great. All I can say is that it’s great to be here in Texas, especially Austin, it feels really good to be an American in a very American city, so very, very thankful for that.

“I think this is going to be a great weekend and I really would encourage people to come and take part in this event. I think this is a great race, a great city and we have great weather this weekend and all I can say is that I think it’s going to be an outstanding weekend.”

Rossi was limited by opportunity

Manor driver Alexander Rossi stands outside of his garage during a delay in the second practice session for the Formula One U.S. Grand Prix auto race at the Circuit of the Americas, Friday, Oct. 23, 2015, in Austin, Texas. (AP Photo/Darron Cummings)
Manor driver Alexander Rossi stands outside of his garage during a delay in the second practice session for the Formula One U.S. Grand Prix auto race at the Circuit of the Americas, Friday, Oct. 23, 2015, in Austin, Texas. (AP Photo/Darron Cummings)

Few drivers really get a proper crack at moving from the back-end of the field through to the midfield and then ultimately to one of the top times. For Rossi, who only drove at Manor, not getting picked up by a team further up the grid would hinder his opportunity.

“No matter how talented someone is, you can’t just get a (American) guy in there and have them run around at the back of the field,” 1985 Indianapolis 500 champion, 1983 Benetton Tyrrell F1 driver and veteran driver steward Danny Sullivan told NBC Sports.

“If Alexander had gotten picked up, say by Toro Rosso for an example, and did well in the midpack, he’d have had the chance of a Max Verstappen to get to the next level.

“I was at Spa, and for everyone in that crowd, there were orange shirts or hats. It helps the Dutch border was only 30 minutes away! But they were all there for Max.

“F1 in Germany was not a big deal when (Hans) Stuck and (Heinz-Harald) Frentzen was doing it. But with Schumacher and Vettel, it’s now through the roof.

“You want to see talented drivers in the best teams. People like winners. Why do cities with NFL or NBA teams push so hard to have a winning team? It does a hell of a lot for the community.”

Could an American driver come back?

AUSTIN, TX - OCTOBER 20: Max Verstappen of Netherlands and Red Bull Racing talks with IndyCar driver Conor Daly of United States and Pierre Gasly of France and Red Bull Racing in the Paddock during previews ahead of the United States Formula One Grand Prix at Circuit of The Americas on October 20, 2016 in Austin, United States. (Photo by Clive Mason/Getty Images)
AUSTIN, TX – OCTOBER 20: Max Verstappen of Netherlands and Red Bull Racing talks with IndyCar driver Conor Daly of United States and Pierre Gasly of France and Red Bull Racing in the Paddock during previews ahead of the United States Formula One Grand Prix at Circuit of The Americas on October 20, 2016 in Austin, United States. (Photo by Clive Mason/Getty Images)

Rossi and Conor Daly have a wealth of international experience before resuming in IndyCar, and fellow IndyCar star Josef Newgarden has occasionally been mentioned in passing but never for serious consideration to return to Europe. Santino Ferrucci is in the pipeline with Haas but is several years down the road, at best, from a potential Grand Prix debut.

“I kind of think of my team like the United Nations, it’s just got people from all over the world,” Haas explained.

“It would be nice to have an American driver but probably the most important thing for us, a new, inexperienced team, we need to have established Formula One drivers so it’s a little bit of a contrary problem for us in that there are really no American Formula One drivers that have experience that I think would work with us.”

Sullivan adds, “We have a lot of talent in America. Jeremy Shaw does a super job (with the Team USA Scholarship). But if the money isn’t there to keep them in Europe, they’ll come back to the States. They can live at home, and they know the infrastructure.”

How important the U.S. market is to manufacturers

AUSTIN, TX - OCTOBER 21: Ferrari Team Principal Maurizio Arrivabene in the Team Principals Press Conference during practice for the United States Formula One Grand Prix at Circuit of The Americas on October 21, 2016 in Austin, United States. (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)
AUSTIN, TX – OCTOBER 21: Ferrari Team Principal Maurizio Arrivabene in the Team Principals Press Conference during practice for the United States Formula One Grand Prix at Circuit of The Americas on October 21, 2016 in Austin, United States. (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)

Here are some thoughts from Mercedes’ Toto Wolff and Ferrari’s Maurizio Arrivabene on that front, from the FIA Friday Press Conference:

“Every year we are coming here, it’s really a fantastic venue, and having more grands prix in such an important market for Mercedes, it would be good and wherever we can help, we will do that,” Wolff said.

Arrivabene added, “I mean, USA is for Ferrari a super market. It’s very, very important for us and for sure to have a good result in Austin is very important for our house, but even so it’s important for us that we have USA as a market in general. I’m happy to be here, of course, and we will try to do all our best to deserve the support we have from the USA supporters here.”

Time to “love the one you’re with,” vs. preferring that to a start-up venue

Much as the desire to go to glamorous American markets such as New York, Las Vegas and Miami exists for the Liberty gtroup, part of the problem for F1 in the U.S. has been its instability.

With COTA well on its way to becoming a more permanent part of the fabric in the F1 paddock, change or shakeup now for the pursuit of “the new” will hurt its progress.

It’s a bit like the Stephen Stills song, “Love The One You’re With.” COTA may not be perfect, but sometimes staying with what you know is better than leaving for the hope of something new.

“You know, year No. 5 now for the U.S. Grand Prix, great venue, awesome city, all of Formula 1 loves coming here — what’s wrong? It’s not broken. We don’t need to fix it,” NBCSN lead F1 announcer Leigh Diffey told Autoweek earlier this week.

F1 supremo Bernie Ecclestone, if less than fully enamored with COTA, also does seem more keen on keeping this race at this track going – especially as he noted it would be difficult to have more than one U.S. race.

“We’ve done a lot to help them along because I more or less talked them into it in the first place,” Ecclestone told Reuters. “So we’ll try and keep them going.”

Time to keep the COTA train going versus changing it up

Austin is technically only the sixth circuit to host a United States Grand Prix, following Sebring, Riverside, Watkins Glen, Phoenix and Indianapolis. It has surpassed all bar Watkins Glen and Indianapolis from a longevity standpoint.

But when you factor in other U.S. race host sites that have not featured the USGP title – Long Beach, Caesars Palace in Las Vegas, Dallas, Detroit and the Indianapolis 500 – the full number goes north of double digits.

It behooves F1 in the U.S. to keep the COTA train going as long as possible provided the fan interest and commercial interest is there to match the desires and wishes of the drivers and teams, who always seem to hail Austin as a highlight in the year.

Hulkenberg not surprised by charge to seventh in USGP qualifying

AUSTIN, TX - OCTOBER 21: Nico Hulkenberg of Germany driving the (27) Sahara Force India F1 Team VJM09 Mercedes PU106C Hybrid turbo on track during practice for the United States Formula One Grand Prix at Circuit of The Americas on October 21, 2016 in Austin, United States.  (Photo by Lars Baron/Getty Images)
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Nico Hulkenberg says he is not surprised by his charge to seventh place in qualifying for the United States Grand Prix in Austin, Texas on Saturday, believing it to have been the best result Force India could have scored.

Force India traveled to Austin embroiled in a tight battle with Williams for fourth place in the Formula 1 constructors’ championship, currently enjoying a 10-point advantage with four races remaining.

Hulkenberg featured in the top 10 throughout practice at the Circuit of The Americas, and converted this impressive pace into seventh place on the grid in qualifying.

The German finished clear of Williams drivers Valtteri Bottas and Felipe Massa in P8 and P9 respectively, but was not surprised by such a strong showing.

“No, this was expected. We always thought the car should perform quite well here,” Hulkenberg told NBCSN after the session.

“Seventh was the maximum we could do. For our own power, we couldn’t be with the top three. But beat Williams by half a second, and that wasn’t really expected. All good.”

With every point proving crucial in the battle with Williams, Hulkenberg was asked whether he would like a lonely race to seventh on Sunday.

“I wouldn’t mind that. A quiet race can be nice,” Hulkenberg said.

“It’s chip away and take the points home. I don’t plan for a messy first lap, but that could happen. I just want a good result.”

The United States Grand Prix is live on NBC and the NBC Sports app from 2:30pm ET on Sunday.