Matt-Antoine

Q&A: Skeleton Bronze Medalist Matt Antoine on Rahal, racing, Milwaukee IndyFest

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Olympic Bronze Medalist in Men’s Skeleton, Matt Antoine, is also a big open-wheel racing fan in his spare time. He’s scheduled to attend this weekend’s Milwaukee IndyFest as a guest of Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing. Antoine, originally from Prairie du Chien, Wis. and now training in Colorado, caught up with MotorSportsTalk’s Tony DiZinno heading into the weekend.

MotorSportsTalk: How did the opportunity to come to Milwaukee IndyFest and meet Bobby Rahal come together? 

Matt Antoine: Bobby is part of our board; the purpose is to promote the longevity of our sport for years to come. It’s a newly formed board. They were in Colorado Springs for one of their meetings. It’s where I train during the summertime.

So that was my first opportunity to meet him – and told him I was from Wisconsin. I’d went up to Elkhart Lake, Wis., and he basically asked if I wanted to come. We exchanged some emails, and made the plans. I don’t necessarily know all the details, but I will definitely be there on race day. I’ll get an opportunity to meet the team, and we’re setting up a 2-seater ride.

MST: Have you chatted with Steve Holcomb (fellow Olympic medalist; bobsled) on his two-seater ride (at Houston)?

MA: Nope, I haven’t.

MST: Tell me a bit about how you got hooked on racing.

MA: We went up Elkhart 2-3 times a summer. My brother, dad and myself. He grew up in England, watching auto sports. We grew up watching F1, and he’d take us up to Elkhart Lake. We went up for the CART races. It was just a fantastic weekend. I’m biased – it’s the first race track I went to, but it’s one of the great road courses in the world.

I’ve never been to Milwaukee, so this will be my first experience there. I think the last Indy race we went to was in … maybe 2000 or 2001. But I make time to watch on TV.

MST: What do you think of Bobby himself? 

MA: I was a huge fan of his – we joked about it dinner. As a kid, we went up for one of the CART races, and it was my goal to get every driver’s autograph. One of the last ones I got was Bobby’s – he was difficult to catch. We had to wait outside for an hour and a half, and got his autograph. It’s kind of coming full circle to meet him now on a personal level.

MST: Any other circuits you’ve been to?

MA: Montreal, for one Formula One race, in terms of the mainstream.

MST: What appeals to you about the speed and the sport? 

MA: I’ve always had a love for speed – growing up following auto racing, I thought it was what I was going to do. So there was always that draw and excitement of racing. I also love the technical aspect – and that’s what I do know with skeleton. You’re always figuring out how to make it better, make it faster. That’s one thing I appreciates it about auto sports. I admire many aspects about it.

At the same time, you see the strategy, of teams going to win. There’s the transitioning from practice to qualifying to racing.

Every track is different. You build a progression into a racing.

MST: How do you prepare for each of your runs during a meet? 

MA: We only get about 6-8 runs prior to race day at a given week. You’re drawing on past years and races. You have the general aspects of the track, this corner, that corner, looking through notes. You walk (the course) and see if there’s changes. See what affects the ice and speed. Then you’re watching other sleds and how they react. It’s drawing on past experiences, your time on track is very limited.

You have a general plan, and tweak from there. There might be 6-8 different setups. You’re writing down those notes – asking what’s better or worse – and you put all those small pieces together. On race day, hopefully you’ve figured it out. Then the last 10 percent you find on race day. It’s having to put together all that knowledge, and piece it all together.

MST: How does each track vary and how do you prep for it?

MA: There’s a lot that could change – it depends on how much ice is put on the track. The corners change. You’re following what the weather is like, the moisture, that causes frost buildup. If the ice is smooth, warmer ice versus colder ice determines the amount of grip. Everything is shaved and cut by hand, so it’s subtle changes with people prepare the track. Tend to be more round or square. It’s recognizing that and making subtle changes. Even though it’s technically the same track, there’s all those small changes. Winning a race versus coming in 10th-15th-20th is fractions of a second. Makes a huge effect.

MST: Are Skeleton and sliding sports similar to racing in that it doesn’t translate as well on TV as it does in person?

MA: Absolutely – it’s just like racing in that sense. On TV it looks fast, but you don’t comprehend it until you see the cars. It’s the same with the sliding sports. People come out for the first time to watch and are just blown away. You’re understanding the control and speed. TV never really does justice. And every course varies… we’re anywhere from 70-90 mph and corner design changes. Given the pressure of the corners, you’re probably up to 4-5 Gs.

MST: Are there any runs you’re more amped for or do you stay the same for each one?

MA: There’s definitely some variation depending on the level of competition, say a national race versus the Olympics. One thing you do to be successful, is that I treat every race and situation the same. Some vary more than others. But it is the same process. You go through the ritual in the morning. You do those final preparations. You get warmed up, do the visualization, when you take your run. You know what you have to execute. You can’t react, otherwise it’s too late. Going through that in your head – when you do go out, it’s second nature.

My best races are the ones where I remember the least about, because you’re almost on autopilot and instincts take over.

MST: Getting that medal, what did it mean for you and your sport?

MA: It’s so huge for the sport… it’s our nature to only be popular every 4 years. But results like that do help bring attention and popularity. After every Olympics there’s a lot more inquiries, and that’s how I came into it in 2002. I’m the first medal in Skeleton since 2002. From our results in Sochi – it’s been a very large influx compared to the last couple Olympics. It’s great to see the growth and to be a part of that.

MST: Have you had the chance to meet (NBCSN lead motorsports announcer) Leigh Diffey yet? What did his enthusiasm bring to the Olympics?

MA: We haven’t yet met in person – we’ve exchanged emails and tweets.

I absolutely agree, he was huge. We’ve had normal races throughout the past few years, and you may have good announcers, but they don’t bring that racing knowledge, and it does suffer. So with Leigh there, it was fantastic having him involved. I went back and watched later – and I was really excited to see how well it went over. People said at home the coverage was fantastic.

MST: Your racing hero/heroes is/are?

MA: My biggest racing hero growing up was Michael Schumacher. When I began to take an interest in racing was when he came in. I followed and admired him the most. He’s the person. We’re all still pulling for him in his recovery.

Among Antoine’s other recent activities, he’s been among a number of athletes to have taken the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge – one he posted to YouTube as the “Ice Bucket Challenge for the Renaissance Man.”

McLaren confirms F1 testing running schedule for Barcelona

Yas Marina Circuit, Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates.
Friday 24 February 2017.
World Copyright: Steven Tee/LAT Photographic
ref: Digital Image _R3I5192
© McLaren
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McLaren has become the latest team to confirm its running schedule for the upcoming Formula 1 pre-season test days in Barcelona, Spain.

McLaren launched its new car, the MCL32, at its base in Woking, England on Friday, with drivers Fernando Alonso and Stoffel Vandoorne on-hand to unveil the team’s new orange look.

Alonso and Vandoorne will split testing duties next week with the start of pre-season testing at the Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya on Monday.

Alonso will enjoy the first public run behind the wheel of the MCL32 on Monday before handing over to Vandoorne on Tuesday. Alonso returns on Wednesday, with Vandoorne then closing out the first test on Thursday.

McLaren is also set to complete a filming day in Barcelona on Sunday, which will represent the first on-track running for the MCL32 after an extensive development phase.

Ed Carpenter Racing drivers face crucial 2017 season

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Photo: Mike Finnegan/Sonoma Raceway
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On paper, Ed Carpenter Racing could be in for a banner year in the 2017 Verizon IndyCar Series.

The open test at Phoenix International Raceway served notice that their cars are quick, with JR Hildebrand turning the fastest lap across the two-day test. Throw in up-and-coming Spencer Pigot, the 2015 Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires champion who will again contest the road and street events in the No. 20 Fuzzy’s Vodka Chevrolet, and team owner Ed Carpenter, known for his oval prowess, and their driver lineup looks as stout as any among the 2017 entries.

However, it is also a year of vital importance, particularly for the aforementioned Hildebrand and Pigot.

INDIANAPOLIS, IN – MAY 19: JR Hildebrand, driver of the #21 Ed Carpenter Racing Chevrolet Dallara is seen on the track during practice for the Indy 500 at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway on May 19, 2014 in Indianapolis, Indiana. (Photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images)

To say that JR Hildebrand has something to prove might be an understatement. Once a promising up-and-comer who won the Indy Lights title in 2009, Hildebrand’s career has been in limbo since he and Panther Racing parted ways after the 2013 Indianapolis 500. Though he showed promise and speed in his brief tenure with John Barnes’ old team, his time there was somewhat star-crossed.

He infamously crashed out of the lead on the final lap of the 2011 Indianapolis 500. He was dominating the 2012 MAVTV 500 at Auto Club Speedway before he brushed the wall and damaged the right-rear suspension. During a caution period at the 2013 Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg, he ran up and over race leader Will Power after briefly looking down to make an adjustment on his steering wheel. And, in what proved to be his final outing as a full-time driver, he crashed on lap 4 of the 2013 Indianapolis 500.

Since then, Hildebrand has only been a part-time competitor, only running entries at the INDYCAR Grand Prix at Indianapolis and the Indy 500. In fact, as he explained at the Phoenix test, he didn’t even dip his feet into sports car racing, as many open wheel drivers do when they’re not driving IndyCars.

“No, I have not (pursued opportunities in sports cars). I’ve been hanging out with these guys (Ed Carpenter Racing) trying to get back to being full-time in IndyCar,” he explained during the Phoenix test.

He later explained that, while he was also busy promoting STEM and other education initiatives, limited opportunities in sports car racing made venturing into that discipline less than ideal. “Since GRAND-AM and IMSA have combined, there’s just kind of fewer of the prototype drives and the GTLM, which is an amazing category…there’s a lot of factory guys there. It’s a little bit of a tricky thing to work your way into, particularly if it’s a part-time thing, I’ve found.”

Perhaps the most important piece of driving he has ever done, though, came in relief of Josef Newgarden after he broke his hand and collarbone at Texas Motor Speedway last year. Hildebrand filled in for Newgarden at tests at Road America, Iowa Speedway, and the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course, which he said helped keep the rust off and prove his value to the team.

“Those are all places where you’re doing something fairly different,” he said of time as a relief driver. “And so for me to have that added familiarity with the types of things, particularly that Josef was looking for in the race car, somebody who clearly had been finding what he was looking for, knew what he was looking for and was making good on that on the track, you know, that was really valuable for me.”

Expectations are high for Hildebrand on his return. It’s obvious that the 29-year-old still possesses all the talent he displayed in junior categories and in his brief time as an IndyCar driver. And Ed Carpenter Racing does not look like it’s missed a beat with Newgarden’s departure. Hildebrand echoed those expectations and firmly believes he should contend for victories.

“A successful season for us is me picking up my first race win, wherever that ends up being,” he asserted after a recent test at Sonoma Raceway. “That is absolutely a goal of ours to be in the Winner’s Circle. For me there is no doubt that my goal is to come into this season with a number of road and street courses on the schedule and be consistently in contention at those places.”

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While Hildebrand has garnered much of the hype, teammate Spencer Pigot is not to be forgotten. While he stepped up at least part-time last year before it grew into the rest of the season, it was still a challenge. He began with Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing on a three-race deal before joining Ed Carpenter Racing to run the road and street courses after the Indy 500.

Pigot’s results were unspectacular, but he did improve as the year continued. The 23-year-old scored a pair of top tens at Road America and Mid-Ohio and showed an increase in raw speed in the second half of the season.

However, Pigot’s second season will be pivotal for his IndyCar future. Evidence of this can be found in three other recent Indy Lights champions: Tristan Vautier, Sage Karam, and Gabby Chaves. Each was relegated to part-time drives following their rookie campaigns and only Karam is currently slated to run any IndyCar races this year (he announced an Indy 500 entry with Dreyer and Reinbold Racing earlier in February).

In one way, Pigot already has an advantage over Vautier, Karam, and Chaves in that he will contest a second season, and for the same team as well. Consequently, his second season in the Verizon IndyCar Series provides a chance to firmly establish himself as a top-level driver after spending his rookie year learning the cars and series. Perhaps the most important aspect of his driving he’ll need to improve on is his qualifying pace. Only four times did he qualify better than 20th and he often struggled to get the most out of the softer, red-walled Firestones.

While he didn’t reveal many details after the ECR test outing at Sonoma, Pigot did express confidence that he and the team are going in the right direction.

“It’s been a while since we were (at Sonoma Raceway) and it’s been since September since I drove the car, so I’m excited to be back in an IndyCar and so far so good. We had a really productive morning, and we’ve been sticking to our test plan, which we spent a lot of time going over before we got here in order to maximize our day,” Pigot said after the February 14 test.

The performance of Ed Carpenter Racing has been one of most positive stories in the Verizon IndyCar Series since the team debuted in 2012. And for Hildebrand and Pigot, the organization gives them a chance to cement their IndyCar careers.

Sebastian Vettel: New Ferrari Formula 1 car ‘a step forward’

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Sebastian Vettel feels that Ferrari’s new Formula 1 car feels like “a step forward” after enjoying his first test with the SF70H at Fiorano on Friday.

Ferrari unveiled its new F1 car on Friday before sending it out on-track for the first time at its private test track, with Vettel and teammate Kimi Raikkonen both enjoying laps behind the wheel as part of a filming day.

Speaking after his first run in the car, Vettel said that he was immediately impressed by the SF70H.

“You can see it’s a step forward. You can feel it’s a step forward,” Vettel said.

“It’s fun to drive. The car is quite big. It looks quite strong from the outside, but also the first impression is the right one.

“The conditions are not how they’re gonna be in Australia but today we didn’t have any problems. So it was a good day and a good start.”

All 10 F1 teams have faced a big technical challenge in preparation for 2017 following an overhaul of the technical regulation that will make the cars significantly quicker, resulting in a more aggressive look.

“Clearly a new season is a new challenge, but especially this season with new aero and overall regulations, even more a challenge,” Ferrari technical chief Mattia Binotto said.

“The challenge in F1 is always the same. It’s not just being good, but being the first. Being the first means to develop faster than everyone else. Being faster means to increase the rate of development and really speed up.

“The challenge is now even more than in the past to speed up the development. Whoever has been fast and first in the development will be at the front of the grid at the start in Australia.”

Ferrari will next hit the track in Barcelona, Spain on Monday February 27 with the start of collective pre-season testing.

Williams releases official images of FW40 Formula 1 car

Williams Martini Racing FW40 Mercedes Launch.
Grove, Oxfordshire, United Kingdom.
February, 2017.
The Williams FW40 Mercedes pre-test photo shoot.
Photo: Drew Gibson/Williams
Ref: FW40 angle - 19
© Williams Martini Racing
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Williams has officially launched its new car for the 2017 Formula 1 season, the FW40, by releasing in-the-flesh images on Saturday.

Williams was the first team to present its new-look car for 2017, releasing a set of renders eight days ago ahead of today’s official launch.

The team issued the real-life images of its car on Saturday, two days before the start of pre-season testing in Barcelona, Spain.

Felipe Massa and Lance Stroll will pilot the FW40 through 2017 as the team celebrates 40 years of racing in F1.

Massa returns despite originally planning to retire from F1 at the end of last year, with his comeback being agreed following Valtteri Bottas’ move to Mercedes.

Stroll arrives in F1 as one of its youngest ever drivers, having won the FIA European Formula 3 title last season with Prema Powerteam.

Williams enters 2017 looking to bounce back from a disappointing campaign that saw it fall from third to fifth in the constructors’ championship, dropping behind Red Bull and Force India in the pecking order.

The FW40 follows the example set by the other teams with their 2017-spec cars, falling in line with the radical new technical regulations that have resulted in an aggressive look from teams.

The FW40 retains its thumb nose and also sports a large ‘shark fin’ engine cover that has also been implemented by a number of other teams.

Williams Martini Racing FW40 Mercedes Launch. Grove, Oxfordshire, United Kingdom. February, 2017. The Williams FW40 Mercedes pre-test photo shoot. Photo: Drew Gibson/Williams Ref: FW40 side - 18
Photo: Drew Gibson/Williams
Photo: Drew Gibson/Williams Ref: Heritage 001 - 18
Photo: Drew Gibson/Williams

Williams’ new car will hit the track for the first time in Barcelona on Monday with the start of pre-season testing.