PWC: Sonoma GT/GTS doubleheader sets stage for Miller title showdowns

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Author’s note: The Pirelli World Challenge raced Rounds 13 and 14 of the 2014 season at Sonoma Raceway this weekend, alongside the Verizon IndyCar Series and Mazda Road to Indy divisions. The GT, GT-A and GTS classes set the stage for the final weekend of the season, Sept. 12-13 at Miller Motorsports Park in Salt Lake City, Utah. Races air Saturday, August 30 at 1 p.m. ET on NBCSN; if you don’t want to know who won this weekend, we’d advise you read no further.

SONOMA, Calif. – There were six different winners in this weekend’s pair of Pirelli World Challenge races, the Cadillac Grand Prix of Sonoma. Saturday’s Round 13 saw Mike Skeen (GT), Michael Mills (GT-A) and Jack Baldwin (GTS) bag victories, with Anthony Lazzaro (GT), Albert von Thurn und Taxis (GT-A) and Lawson Aschenbach (GTS) scoring the Sunday Round 14 wins.

Saturday’s Round 13 lost nearly the first 20 minutes after contact between Peter Cunningham’s stalled Acura and series debutante Santiago Creel in one of the five TRG-AMR Aston Martins in GTS. Once it resumed, Skeen and Baldwin were able to drive to relatively unchallenged victories, their third and second of the year, respectively.

For Skeen in the CRP Audi, it brought him to within 11 points of GT points leader Johnny O’Connell, who overachieved in the down-on-pace Cadillac to finish fifth. Behind Skeen, Ryan Dalziel (Porsche) and Butch Leitzinger (Bentley) completed the GT podium; Leitzinger secured Bentley’s first podium in the series. Baldwin (Porsche) took an emotional GTS win in front of his family, friends and both Kelsey Flanigan and her family. Flanigan is a 23-year-old battling brain cancer, and the team is dedicated to #Racing4Kelsey this season.

Meanwhile Mills (Porsche) recovered from a self-described “horrible” start, taking advantage of patience, pace and both Lamborghinis falling from the top two positions to recover for his fourth straight GT-A win.

Sunday’s Round 14 saw the drama amp up. The GT start order was mucked up with both Bentleys struggling off the line and Lazzaro, Dalziel and Robert Thorne’s McLaren moving into the top three positions. GTS was the same way, with polesitter Baldwin falling back after having to avoid Andrew Palmer’s stalled Audi. Andy Lee and Aschenbach, in a pair of Camaros, made it through to the top two spots.

Behind the top 3 in GT, O’Connell and Skeen enjoyed a feverish battle for fourth, but fell back after Mike Hedlund’s Ferrari and Leitzinger’s Bentley both made great passes to get around. Eventual light contact between the two GT title protagonists left Skeen with a flat left rear tire and knocked him to 19th. With eighth, O’Connell increased his lead to 42 points.

Up front, Lazzaro held on over Dalziel and Thorne for his second win of the year in his R. Ferri Motorsports Ferrari. Aschenbach and Baldwin made it to 1-2 in GTS, with Lee third. The race ended under yellow following an accident for Dean Martin’s GTS Ford; Martin, despite heavy impact after a right rear tire blowout at Turn 1, was evaluated and released from the infield medical center.

Von Taxis, a German nobleman and prince who has been one of the most popular drivers in the paddock this season, led a Reiter Engineering 1-2 in GT-A for his first series win. Teammate Marcelo Hahn and TRG-AMR’s Christina Nielsen, the latter in her first weekend in the series, completed that podium.

Not mentioned to this point is GTS points leader Mark Wilkins, who finished fourth in both races and consolidated his points lead. He leads Aschenbach by 80 heading to Miller in three weeks. Mills leads GT-A over Henrik Hedman.

IndyCar 2015 Driver Review: Gabby Chaves

Gabby Chaves
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MotorSportsTalk continues its run through the driver-by-driver field in the Verizon IndyCar Series. In 15th and the rookie-of-the-year for 2015, was Gabby Chaves.

Gabby Chaves, No. 98 Bryan Herta Autosport Honda

  • 2014: Indy Lights champion
  • 2015: 15th Place, Best Finish 9th, Best Start 12th, 0 Top-5, 2 Top-10, 31 Laps Led, 19.3 Avg. Start, 14.4 Avg. Finish

Some drivers finish better than their performances show. Some drivers have performances better than their results show. The latter statement applied to Gabby Chaves in his rookie year, in what was an impressive first season after making the step up from Indy Lights, which deservedly earned him rookie-of-the-year honors.

The best comparison I’d make for Gabby is of Josef Newgarden in 2012 with Sarah Fisher Hartman Racing, a first-year driver on a single-car, newish team to the series.

Chaves rarely dazzled in qualifying but that wasn’t his fault; he and engineer John Dick worked well together and Chaves recounted multiple times this year that a tweak here or tweak there, the wrong way, on the aero kit would send them down the wrong setup path.

Results in races didn’t measure up either but again that was through almost no fault of his own. The only time Chaves looked truly like a rookie was at St. Pete, when he had several collisions. Otherwise he was ahead of eventual winner James Hinchcliffe at NOLA before getting punted off, reliable through the month of May in Indianapolis, finally able to break through for a ninth place in Detroit race two, overachieving in Texas, 11th at Milwaukee after some great wheel-to-wheel racing with series winners and champions, and then phenomenal at Pocono as he was on course for a first career win or podium before late-race engine issues – his first DNF of the season.

For both Chaves and Herta, you’d love to see them together for another season, and the results and confidence for both parties will grow as a result. Those who’ve seen Newgarden’s rise over four years with Fisher and now CFH will note the long-term stability, and that’s what Chaves could do if he gets the time.

He planted the seed of being a great IndyCar driver, and he became pretty versatile during the year too with additional appearances in the DeltaWing prototype, a short-track midget and one of Herta’s Red Bull Global Rallycross cars. To boot, he’s a smart, great kid who is mature beyond his years, and someone you should be buying stock in now. Anyone who saw Chaves in the Mazda Road to Indy should not have been surprised by his rookie season in the big cars.

Off The Grid: Monza preview (premieres Saturday 10/10 on NBCSN)

F1 Grand Prix of Italy
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Having already taken you behind the scenes in Barcelona, Budapest, Singapore, Melbourne and Silverstone, Will Buxton and Jason Swales now head to one of Formula 1’s most iconic venues for the latest episode of Off The Grid.

Monza has appeared in all but one F1 season since the formation of the world championship in 1950, and is a firm favorite among drivers, teams and fans alike.

However, there is far more to the Italian Grand Prix than meets the eye, as we find out in Saturday’s premiere of Off The Grid: Monza at 9:30am ET (follows Russian GP qualifying).

Having honed his talents in go-karts as a kid, Red Bull driver Daniel Ricciardo is now trying to pass on his knowledge to the next generation of racers. But can he teach Will or Jason a thing or two?

We also catch up with Force India’s Nico Hulkenberg and get a feel for life on the road as he takes us for a tour of his lavish bus in which he travels in for the European F1 races.

Have you ever wondered just how the suits F1 drivers wear are made? We go behind the scenes at Alpine Stars’ factory in Italy and find out.

Off The Grid: Monza premieres on Saturday at 9:30am ET on NBCSN following Russian GP qualifying.