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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.

McLaren releases audio of first MP4-31 fire-up

MEXICO CITY, MEXICO - NOVEMBER 01:  Jenson Button of Great Britain and McLaren Honda drives during the Formula One Grand Prix of Mexico at Autodromo Hermanos Rodriguez  on November 1, 2015 in Mexico City, Mexico.  (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)
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As the countdown to the beginning of Formula 1 pre-season testing in Barcelona continues, McLaren has followed Ferrari’s lead by releasing an audio snippet of its 2016 car being fired up for the first time.

McLaren enters the new year hoping to bounce back from a miserable 2015 campaign that was marred by struggles with its Honda power unit, limiting drivers Fernando Alonso and Jenson Button to just 27 points across the course of the season.

The crew at Woking has been working tirelessly over the winter to get the new car, the MP4-31, ready for the new season, and everything now appears set for the first pre-season test in Barcelona.

On Sunday, McLaren released a short audio snippet of the car being fired up at its base ahead of its official unveil on February 21.

Pre-season testing begins at the Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya on February 22, with the eighth and final day of running taking place on March 4.

NHRA: Parachute fails on Gary Densham’s career-best Funny Car run (video)

Densham crash
(Photo courtesy NHRA's official Twitter account)
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Veteran NHRA Funny Car driver Gary Densham has been hurtling down drag strips for more than 30 years.

Saturday, the 69-year-old Densham had the best day of his career — and one of the worst, at the same time.

The Southern California native was making a qualifying run during the season-opening Circle K Winternationals at Auto Club Raceway in Pomona, Calif.

The good news for Densham: he ran a career-best 4.050 seconds in his Dodge Charger, qualifying 11th in the 16-car field for Sunday’s eliminations.

The bad news: the parachutes on his Funny Car failed to deploy and Densham ran head-on into a catchfence at the end of Auto Club Raceway’s short runoff area. While Densham’s car was destroyed, he walked away uninjured.

And that’s the best news of all.

Check out the video and then some tweets about the incident and the day, including visits by former IndyCar champion Dario Franchitti and Tommy Lee of rock group Motley Crue:

Follow @JerryBonkowski

Haas confirms F1 pre-season testing running order

MEXICO CITY, MEXICO - OCTOBER 30:  Haas F1 Team logos during the press conference for their driver announcement on October 30, 2015 in Mexico City, Mexico.  (Photo by Andrew Hone/Getty Images for Haas)
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Haas Formula 1 Team has confirmed its running order for the upcoming pre-season test sessions in Barcelona, Spain.

NASCAR team co-owner Gene Haas’ new F1 team will grace the grid in 2016 after two years of preparation, with the covers being taken off its car on the morning of the first test on February 22 at the Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya.

Romain Grosjean will be the first driver to head out on-track in a Haas F1 car, completing all of the running on February 22.

Teammate Esteban Gutierrez will then get his first taste of the car the following day, with the two drivers then alternating duties for the final two days of the opening test.

Gutierrez will enjoy both of the first two days of running at the second test (March 1-2) before handing back over to Grosjean for days three and four in Barcelona.

“The first thing for the test is to get the car to run and to work well from there. Hopefully, we can get a lot of mileage,” Grosjean said.

“This is a new team, so we need to get everyone to work together, all the engineers, mechanics and the drivers. We need to get as much data and knowledge as we can.

“It’s important to get the reliability sorted as early as possible because we don’t get much testing and we’re going straight to Melbourne.”

Haas F1 Team driver line-up for first Barcelona test (February 22-25)

Monday February 22: Grosjean
Tuesday February 23: Gutiérrez
Wednesday February 24: Grosjean
Thursday February 25: Gutiérrez

Haas F1 Team driver line-up for second Barcelona test (March 1-4)

Tuesday March 1: Gutiérrez
Wednesday March 2: Gutiérrez
Thursday March 3: Grosjean
Friday March 4: Grosjean

Romain Grosjean pleased with initial Haas simulator feedback

KANNAPOLIS, NC - SEPTEMBER 29:  Romain Grosjean of France speaks during a press conference as Haas F1 Team announces Grosjean as their driver for the upcoming 2016 Formula 1 season on September 29, 2015 in Kannapolis, North Carolina.  (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Stewart-Haas Racing via Getty Images)
© Getty Images
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Romain Grosjean felt pleased with his first simulator run in the new Haas Formula 1 car ahead of its on-track debut in Barcelona on February 22.

NASCAR team co-owner Gene Haas will take his F1 operation onto the grid this season after two years of preparation, with Grosjean joining ex-Ferrari reserve Esteban Gutierrez at the team for its maiden campaign.

Ahead of the car’s first on-track run at the beginning of pre-season testing in Spain later this month, Grosjean has completed some laps in it using a simulator, and reported that the initial feedback was positive.

“The impressions were quite good, even if in the beginning it was necessary to resolve a lot of small technical problems such as turbo lag, the energy recovered under braking, etc,” Grosjean told L’Equipe.

“The morning was spent doing this. But once everything was settled we had the opportunity to run extensively in the afternoon.

“I think the car’s baseline appears to be good. We now know the simulator corresponds to the windtunnel, but the differences with what we find in reality are sometimes huge – at Lotus for example, the car changed dramatically between track and simulator.”

Haas will lift the covers off its first F1 car on Monday 22 February ahead of the initial on-track running later that day.