De Phillippi. Photo: 'Gruppe C'/Land Motorsport

American Connor De Phillippi reaches title promised land in Europe

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For several years on the Mazda Road to Indy, Connor De Phillippi was among the star open-wheel prospects-in-waiting. The driver out of San Clemente, Calif. had the theoretical package of combining great talent, speed, marketability, partner relationships and looks in hand – similar to a Josef Newgarden, another past Team USA Scholarship recipient.

Sadly, all the theoretical ingredients and the fact De Phillippi was one of the top drivers who hadn’t won a MRTI title didn’t mean he had the budget to advance into Indy Lights once his Star Mazda career ended. And when that ended, it meant his open-wheel career did as well, so suddenly, he found himself at a crossroads.

De Phillippi had always been rated highly by American Porsche factory ace Patrick Long, the manufacturer’s lone American factory driver. A shift to sports cars would likely end the open-wheel dream but when the opportunity presents itself and you have a chance to follow that road, you take it.

De Phillippi made it to Porsche as a rare American driver selected for the prestigious Porsche Junior program – second only to Long in its history.

Some success followed in the Porsche Carrera Cup Deutschland and ultimately, the flagship of Porsche’s one-make series, Porsche Mobil 1 Supercup.

The 2013 season saw De Phillippi claim the Rookie of the Year honors in the series; the next year, in Porsche Carrera Cup Germany, he won twice and finished eighth overall. Once in Supercup, he scored a couple top-five finishes in the deep field.

For the Californian, moving to Germany required a full culture immersion. It meant getting to know Germany families, the language, the lifestyle, the food and the culture – all while also trying to learn the tracks and series he’d be competing in.

Photo: 'Gruppe C'/Land Motorsport
Photo: ‘Gruppe C’/Land Motorsport

However, once De Phillippi completed his three years as a Porsche Junior through 2015, the opportunity presented itself to switch to another manufacturer within the same VW Group – Audi – and Land Motorsport. And “CDP,” who’s 23 until Christmas Day, grabbed it with both hands.

A star drive at the Creventic 24H Series season opener, the 24 Hours of Dubai, was a breakthrough performance for De Phillippi on the world stage within FIA GT3-spec machinery, in the new Audi R8 LMS. And as he explained, that singular outing is what put the rest of his season together properly.

The result didn’t come by way of a late-race gearbox failure, but the car had built a several-lap lead prior to the retirement previously

“Obviously the news that I wouldn’t be continuing with Porsche was not really a shock,” De Phillippi told NBC Sports. “I had a tough season and I wasn’t in the position or environment to perform my best. The results weren’t there.

“Land and the Audi program was a fresh start for me. We have a really good sponsor that allows us to put together a proper program… we had the engineering… and we had the funding we needed to go testing. This is a situation I had never been in before. For me, that’s what allowed me to excel. I felt comfortable straightaway. There was no looking back.

“That race was truly the beginning of the whole GT Masters program. It was only supposed to be VLN and a few endurance races. It was a test drive to get along with Chris Mies and Marc Basseng. The Dubai performance went so well, and we didn’t expect to be as dominant as we had. That was the first kind of hint showing the potential we had, if we put a program together. We could later enter into GT Masters and the whole program was born from the result of being so strong in Dubai.”

Mies and De Phillippi. Photo: 'Gruppe C'/Land Motorsport
Mies and De Phillippi. Photo: ‘Gruppe C’/Land Motorsport

Mies and De Phillippi would share Montaplast by Land’s No. 29 Audi for the ADAC GT Masters championship. The series is a seven-weekend, 14-race championship that runs one-hour sprint races with a pit window to change drivers and tire pressures, and the level is pretty high caliber in terms of FIA GT3-spec cars and teams that compete here.

The biggest change other than the manufacturer and type of racing De Phillippi would adapt to for 2016 would be a shift back to living at home primarily in California first, then commuting to the races in Europe, rather than basing himself in Germany as he had the last few years.

With this change in mindset and being around family and friends on a more regular basis, it allowed De Phillippi to flourish.

“I’ve been living in a small town called Winterberg with a small family,” De Phillippi explained. “Most of the season I’ve been flying back and forth. It’s been why my performance has been higher. I’m in a happier place being with family and friends.

“It took a toll on me, and enjoying where you live, and seeing your family is really important. It really affects your performance. Luckily I have the time to go back to California. If I had 2-3 races in a row, I’d stay.

Having Mies, a GT3 veteran and Audi ace help his transition, didn’t hurt either. Mies helped raise both drivers’ game this year and De Phillippi was quick to extoll him.

“Finding a teammate you get on with on is a needle in a haystack,” he explained. “We had a special connection there. I’ve learned a lot from him this year, especially from the the technical side. He helped a lot with the development of it.

“Really, I’ve just listened a lot. I had to soak up as much information as I can. Also just with race craft and things like that, I’ve surprised myself a lot. From the beginning, we’ve been on the same pace level.

“Overall, when it comes to compromise in teammates, that’s the one great thing is finding a happy medium. We like the same car, driving styles so similar, you’d think it’s the same driver. It’s a unique situation to have so much more about the series. We’re a strong pair this year.”

The pairing won only once, race two at the Nürburgring, but used consistency throughout the year to win the title by nine points. De Phillippi explained that drive there.

“I would say my best drive was race two at the Nürburgring during GT Masters,” he said. “After the pit stop circulation we were in third, and I kind of drove like a mad dog! I passed for second and the lead… that was our one and only win this year.

“We were extremely consistent and always on the podium,” he added. “We haven’t had the strongest Balance of Performance… but we knew we had to extract the most out of it. We saw it, because if you look at the next closest Audi, it’s further down. We did well with what we had.”

Title clinched. Photo: 'Gruppe C'/Land Motorsport
Title clinched. Photo: ‘Gruppe C’/Land Motorsport

They added another Nürburgring victory – this time at the VLN Endurance Championship season finale – last weekend for good measure (more on this from Audi and The Drive).

De Phillippi is hopeful of continuing with a return to GT Masters and VLN with Land and Audi in 2017, with sporadic U.S. appearances in the endurance races highly likely at this stage.

For the moment though, he’s just enjoying the run of having achieved a title after four years of pursuing his dream in sports car racing.

“Racing in Germany is where I started in Europe and it’s become my home over here. As far as level of competition in a single country, Germany is the highest,” he said.

“As far as the level of this series goes, it’s overlooked – even I did at the start of the year. The level has stepped up. We saw that when a team like Zakspeed ran in the Blancpain Endurance race at Nürburgring and ran top-six, top-seven straightaway.

“To see a team can go into BES – and we all know the level of BES – and to be top-five straightaway, really shows the level and caliber we are competing against.”

After ‘rough start’ to 2017, Raikkonen responds with Russia podium

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Kimi Raikkonen was pleased to put a “rough start” to the 2017 Formula 1 season behind him by charging to third place in Sunday’s Russian Grand Prix for Ferrari.

Raikkonen entered the Sochi weekend with half the points of Ferrari teammate Sebastian Vettel, having seen the German driver claim two wins and one second-place finish in the opening three rounds of the year.

Raikkonen had failed to hit the podium in F1 since the Austrian Grand Prix in July, but nearly scored his first F1 pole for nine years on Saturday after running Vettel close in qualifying.

Despite slipping behind eventual race winner Valtteri Bottas at the start, Raikkonen was able to keep Mercedes’ Lewis Hamilton back early on before enduring a rather lonely race en route to third place.

“I think I have had a bit of a rough start to the season, far from ideal. This weekend for sure has been a step forward,” Raikkonen said on the podium after the race.

“We’ve been more happy with how things have been running, but we still only finished third. We lost out off the start and then not an awful lot happened after that.

“We keep trying and keep improving, I’m sure we’ll get there. It’s all about all the small details have to be exactly there, then you will get the first place, because the four of us are very close most of the time.

“It’s a small difference that makes a big difference in the end.”

Despite clinching a double podium with Vettel and Raikkonen in P2 and P3 respectively, Ferrari lost the lead of the constructors’ championship in Russia as Bottas’ victory pushed Mercedes one point clear.

Vettel heaps praise on ‘man of the race’ Bottas after Russia F1 win

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Sebastian Vettel was quick to heap praise upon Mercedes rival Valtteri Bottas following the Finn’s maiden Formula 1 victory in Russia on Sunday.

Vettel entered the race in Sochi chasing his third win of the season from pole position, only for Bottas to blast past him on the run to Turn 2 on the opening lap.

Bottas was able to pull clear through the first stint before Vettel reeled the Mercedes driver in during the closing stages, with the Ferrari looking faster on the super-soft tire.

Vettel eventually fell 0.6 seconds shy of Bottas at the flag, but was full of praise for the first-time winner despite missing out on victory himself.

“I obviously tried everything to catch Valtteri, I thought there might be some kind of opportunity on the back straight,” Vettel explained.

“I was sure [Felipe Massa, who was being lapped] would lift around Turn 3, it’s flat out, and let me by so I wouldn’t lose much time. But then I think just wasn’t sure what he was going to do, and ended up losing a bit more than I was hoping for.

“In the end it doesn’t matter. I think this is the man of the race today, big congrats to Valtteri, his first grand prix win. It’s his day.

“I think we tried everything, but obviously we lost the race at the start, which was a bit of a shame. I had a good start. I think our start was probably a match to Valtteri, maybe he gained a bit of momentum at the beginning, but then he had a massive tow.

“I defended the inside, but by the time we approached braking he was already in front and able to shut the door on me, so well done. That’s where he won the race, and then he did a superb first stint, I couldn’t stay with him.

“He was very, very quick all race, no mistakes. As I said, man of the race.”

Despite finishing second, Vettel managed to extend his championship lead to 13 points in Russia after closest-rival Lewis Hamilton ailed to fourth place in the second Mercedes.

Bottas: First F1 win feels ‘amazing’, worth the 81-race wait

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Valtteri Bottas made no secret of his delight after scoring his first Formula 1 race win in Russia on Sunday, beating Ferrari drivers Sebastian Vettel and Kimi Raikkonen to victory at the Sochi Autodrom.

In just his fourth race for Mercedes, Bottas charged from third place on the grid to seize the lead at the start en route to his maiden grand prix victory, coming on his 81st start.

Bottas made his F1 debut back in 2013 with Williams, and had not won a race since a British Formula 3 round at Donington Park in 2011 before today’s breakthrough.

“Amazing. It took quite a while, more than 80 races for me, but definitely worth the wait and worth the learning curve,” Bottas said after the race.

“This strange opportunity came to me in the winter to join this team, and they made it possible today, so really want to thank the team. Without them it wouldn’t be possible. It feels amazing.”

The result marked Mercedes’ second win of the season and sees the German marque re-claim the lead of the constructors’ championship, moving one point clear of Ferrari.

“We’ve had a tricky beginning of the year. The fight with Ferrari, again today, was very close,” Bottas said.

“We managed to be on top, but we have to keep pushing. We have to keep finishing with both cars all the time one and two.

“Just very, very happy now.”

Bottas takes maiden F1 victory in Russia despite late Vettel charge

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Valtteri Bottas became Formula 1’s newest winner after dominating Sunday’s Russian Grand Prix for Mercedes, leading home Sebastian Vettel and Kimi Raikkonen at the Sochi Autodrom on Sunday.

In what was something of a slow-burner in Sochi, Bottas managed to seize the lead from pole-sitter Vettel at the start before perfecting the restart after a safety car period to create a healthy buffer that acted as the foundation for his first F1 victory.

Despite a late charge from Vettel – chasing his third win of the season – in the closing stages, Bottas was able to hang on and become the fifth Finnish driver to claim a grand prix victory, coming in just his fourth race for Mercedes.

Ferrari’s advantage in qualifying was quickly overturned at the start when Bottas managed to get a slipstream on both Vettel and Raikkonen, allowing him to pass ahead of Turn 2. Vettel settled down in second ahead of Raikkonen and Lewis Hamilton, but the race was quickly neutralized following a clash between Romain Grosjean and Jolyon Palmer that sparked a safety car period.

Bottas managed to perfect the restart once the incident had been cleared to quickly gap Vettel, opening up a three-second lead in the laps that followed. Hamilton was doing his best to keep in touch with Raikkonen in third, only for Mercedes to confirm that his car was overheating, forcing him to ease off his pace.

The battle for fifth also took a twist in the early stages of the race when Daniel Ricciardo suffered a brake failure, forcing him to retire from the race. Max Verstappen was able to move ahead of Felipe Massa off the line, giving Red Bull something to be upbeat about, but hopes of the podium remained slim.

Bottas’ lead stood at around five seconds after 20 laps, but his lead soon began to fall. A mixture of both traffic and tire blistering allowed Vettel to gain time hand-over-fist as the first round of pit stops neared, moving to within three seconds of the Finnish driver.

Bottas was the first of the leaders to pit, coming in for a new set of super-soft tires at the end of Lap 27. Mercedes serviced Bottas quickly, but Ferrari did not react immediately, instead choosing to keep Vettel out in the hope that the ‘overcut’ would play into his hands again as it did in Australia.

Ferrari eventually pulled the trigger on Lap 34, bringing Vettel in to make the switch to super-soft tires after seeing Raikkonen lay down an impressive pace after changing compound a few laps earlier. With Bottas struggling to match the pace of the Ferraris on the super-softs, the Finn’s stranglehold on the race looked weaker than before despite being back in the lead.

Vettel made up yet more time with 13 laps to go when Bottas ran wide at Turn 13, appearing to struggle with his front-left tire and lock up. The mistake allowed Vettel to close to within two seconds, setting the stage for a fight to the flag.

Vettel managed to find some clear air between traffic and move around a second behind Bottas with four laps to go. Bottas kept getting a good exit from the final corner, ensuring Vettel did not get DRS at first, making it difficult for the Ferrari driver to pull a pass.

A good lap saw Vettel finally dip under the one second margin and get the DRS boost with two laps to go. With Bottas also coming across traffic, the pair were separated by just a few car lengths heading onto the final lap.

Bottas was offered a late bonus when he came across Felipe Massa, running a lap down, and was able to use DRS himself. Massa also made life difficult for Vettel behind, allowing Bottas to move clear once again.

It proved to be the final act in an exciting finish, with Bottas coming through to secure his maiden grand prix victory and give Mercedes its second win of the year. Vettel was left to settle for P2, but extended his lead in the drivers’ championship in the process to 13 points.

Kimi Raikkonen endured a rather lonely finish to the race, crossing the line third to pick up his first podium finish of the year. He finished over 15 seconds clear of Lewis Hamilton, whose difficult weekend came to a quiet end in P4, over 20 seconds down on the race winner.

Max Verstappen led Red Bull’s charge alone in fifth place following Ricciardo’s early retirement, while Sergio Perez and Esteban Ocon continued Force India’s record of getting both cars into the points at every race, the pair finishing sixth and seventh respectively.

Nico Hulkenberg was able to follow his first points for Renault in Bahrain with a second charge into the top 10, finishing eighth. Felipe Massa had looked set to finish sixth, only for a slow puncture to force him into a late second stop, leaving him P9 at the flag. Carlos Sainz Jr. rounded out the points for Toro Rosso in 10th.

Lance Stroll recorded his first race finish in F1, crossing the line 11th in the second Williams, while home favorite Daniil Kvyat was left to settle for 12th. Kevin Magnussen and Stoffel Vandoorne finished 13th and 14th respectively for Haas and McLaren, both having been hit with penalties for exceeding track limits on the opening lap. Marcus Ericsson and Pascal Wehrlein finished 15th and 16th respectively for Sauber, closing out the classified running order.

Fernando Alonso’s struggles with McLaren-Honda hit a new low just before the race started when he suffered a power unit failure on the formation lap, forcing him to abandon his car at pit entry. It went down as his first ‘Did Not Start’ since the 2005 United States Grand Prix at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, which curiously will be his next destination for his IndyCar test with Andretti Autosport on Wednesday.

Formula 1 returns in two weeks’ time with the Spanish Grand Prix in Barcelona.