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.

Pirelli confirms tire picks for Hungarian Grand Prix

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Pirelli has confirmed its tire selection for July’s Hungarian Grand Prix in Budapest, with super-soft, soft and medium compounds to be made available to teams.

As in 2016, this year sees teams be given the choice of three compounds for each grand prix. The softest is reserved for qualifying, while at least one of the two hardest sets must be used in the race.

Pirelli announced on Thursday that it would be mirroring its selection from 2016, taking super-soft, soft and medium tires to the Hungaroring.

Drivers who make it through to Q3 will be required to complete the session on super-soft tires, and must use one set of either the soft or medium compound rubber in the race.

By way of comparison, the majority of drivers completed the race on a two-stop strategy through 2016, with Lewis Hamilton winning the grand prix.

Here’s a complete run-down of Pirelli’s tire picks so far this season.

Hamilton, Vettel return to lend their voices to ‘Cars 3’ (VIDEO)

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With less than one month to go until the release of Pixar’s new movie, Cars 3, Formula 1 world champions Lewis Hamilton and Sebastian Vettel have both been confirmed in voice-acting roles.

The latest installment of the animated film series sees main character Lightning McQueen (Owen Wilson) face a new rival in the form of Jackson Storm (Armie Hammer) and consider his racing future.

As in the first two instalments of the franchise, a number of racing figures are set to lend their voices, with three-time champion Hamilton being confirmed in the role of ‘Hamilton’, a voice command assistant to McQueen’s technician, Cruz Ramirez (Cristela Alonzo).

Hamilton shared a clip of his role on Twitter on Thursday, which you can watch below.

Hamilton previously appeared in 2011’s Cars 2 in a short segment as himself alongside NASCAR legend Jeff Gordon.

Four-time F1 champion Vettel will also be making a return in Cars 3, appearing in the German and Italian-language versions of the film in the same role as Hamilton.

“Since the first Cars film, I am a big fan and I found it very funny. When I had the opportunity in the second part to participate, I said: ‘Yes, gladly!'” Vettel said on his official website.

“I had never done something like this before. When I heard there was a third part, I was, of course, interested in being there again.”

A number of NASCAR drivers will also be appearing in Cars 3, with their characters being confirmed earlier this week.

Ford chooses Sebastien Bourdais replacement for 24 Hours of Le Mans

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CONCORD, N.C. —  Ford has chosen a replacement for injured Sebastien Bourdais at the 24 Hours of Le Mans and is expected to announce the driver soon – but don’t hold your breath NASCAR fans.

It isn’t Tony Stewart, who has indicated his desire to run the renowned event.

While taping an upcoming episode Thursday of the NASCAR on NBC podcast, which you can subscribe to here, Ford Performance director Dave Pericak said the three time champion who returned from NASCAR’s premier series last year still is lobbying “every time he sees us” to race a Ford GT car.

“We love Tony, and he wants to get behind the wheel of that GT but not at LeMans” in 2017, Pericak told NBC Sports at the Ford Performance Technical Center.

However, the new driver will be relatively inexperienced on the famous Circuit de la Sarthe road course in France. Pericak said Ford’s high-tech simulator (which mainly is used for NASCAR but also is used for sports cars and street models) at its North Carolina facility would help prepare the replacement.

“We haven’t made the announcement yet, but we have picked the driver, and we will be using the simulator heavily between now and then for that driver to become fully up to speed not only in the GT but at Le Mans,” Pericak said. “There’s a great example of where we’re going to get tons of hours behind the wheel before that driver gets on an airplanes and heads over the France.

“The realism is unbelieveable. It’s a fantastic tool to have with this situation. Otherwise, you pick a driver, send him to Le Mans and take your chances. We’re going to be much more prepared. We already have the simulator ready to run that track because we ran it all last year.”

Returning to France last year, Ford won the 24 Hours of Le Mans with a Chip Ganassi Racing GT driven by Bourdais, Joey Hand and Dirk Muller.

Bourdais, who suffered pelvic fractures and a fractured right hip in an Indianapolis 500 qualifying crash last Saturday, was released from an Indianapolis hospital Wednesday.

“Thank God, he’s going to be OK,” Pericak said. “We’ve talked to him, he’s in good spirits, but we’re really pleased he’s going to make a full recovery.”

Pericak said the announcement of Bourdais’ replacement was likely Thursday or Friday.

Button enjoys ‘natural’ F1 return in Monaco, but hasn’t missed driving

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Jenson Button felt his return to a Formula 1 car in practice for the Monaco Grand Prix was “natural”, but admitted he hasn’t missed driving since stepping away from the sport.

Button appeared to have made his final F1 start in Abu Dhabi last November after stepping back from his McLaren race seat for 2017, only to be drafted in for the Monaco Grand Prix following Fernando Alonso’s decision to enter the 101st Indianapolis 500.

Button passed on the opportunity to test the McLaren-Honda MCL32 car in Bahrain last month, making his run in FP1 on Thursday in Monaco his first taste of a new-style 2017 F1 car.

Nevertheless, the transition appeared seamless for Button, even though he has not driven an F1 car in seven months.

“As soon as I exited the pits, everything felt very natural,” Button said.

“The weirdest thing is when you’re behind a car or when you let a car past, because you look at it and it’s gigantic. Then you feel really uncomfortable because you think, maybe I am too close to the barriers.

“I’ve really enjoyed practice, both the long and short runs. FP2 was a bit of a struggle to really find my feet with the car. I’m braking so much later than what I’m used to here and carrying so much speed into the corners.

“Adjusting to that takes time, so with another day with the engineers and a look through the data, I’m confident that I can improve for Saturday.”

Button finished 14th in FP1 and 11th in FP2, lapping less than one-tenth of a second off the pace of teammate Stoffel Vandoorne in the afternoon, giving McLaren hope of its first points of the season.

Button remains coy about his chances, though, insisting there is still more pace to be found.

“I haven’t really thought about where I hope to finish. It’s a very mixed-up grid at the moment which I’m sure will all change again on Saturday,” Button said.

“The guys understand where I’m coming from. They know what they need to do to improve the car to suit me a little bit more and to give me a little bit more confidence. Hopefully we’ll see a step in performance on Saturday.”

Will this one-off return stir a desire to be back racing full-time for Button? Don’t count on it.

“It was funny when I did the install lap this morning, I had a little giggle to myself,” Button revealed.

“Have I missed it? No, but when you jump in the car, you definitely enjoy the moments that you have.”