All photos courtesy of IMSA

Shank embracing the newness of Acura NSX GT3 program

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Longtime Daytona Prototype-turned-LMP2 team principal Mike Shank is a perfect embodiment of a racing “lifer” (you can find out more about him here in his episode of this season’s Dinner with Racers), but is in the midst of his biggest transition yet as a team owner.

Far from running in the top class of either the GRAND-AM Rolex Series or IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship, Prototype, Shank’s now full-speed ahead in the testing and development process for the new Acura NSX GT3, with a two-car effort in the GT Daytona class.

Moving from a class where there were only eight full-time entries to one where a car count in the mid-20s is expected, with a brand new car, is a lot to take in.

But the test process – which concludes its 2016 calendar work this week at Daytona International Speedway – is going according to plan thus far. Besides the Shank crew, sister Acura team RealTime Racing (from Pirelli World Challenge) has been actively involved in helping preparations commence.

“Every time we take the car out, it’s getting better, literally,” Shank told NBC Sports at last week’s PRI Show in Indianapolis. “Every time it goes out the door, there’s more done to the car to make it endurance-worthy, comfortable for drivers, quick – it’s just a huge bucket list, a punch-out list of stuff to get done that we’re slowly taking care of.

“We’ll get our second car Tuesday (one from HPD) and that car will be at Daytona. The 93 car is one of our IMSA cars and the 86 car you see next week is kind of a test car.”

The aforementioned Nos. 93 and 86 represent the first year of Acura (1986) and the year Honda Performance Development was launched (1993).

Segal (left) and Lally (right). Photo courtesy of IMSA
Segal (left) and Lally (right). Photo courtesy of IMSA

The eight-driver lineup for the Tim Keene-led team has been confirmed with Ozz Negri and Jeff Segal (No. 86) and Andy Lally and Katherine Legge (No. 93) the expected full-season pairings. Tom Dyer and Ryan Hunter-Reay (No. 86) and Mark Wilkins and Graham Rahal (No. 93) are endurance and Daytona extras. Barring any late changes, that’s how Shank expects the lineups to be processed.

Segal and Lally (above) are both GT past champions while Negri and Legge (below) move from longtime prototype careers into GT this season. That will require a bit of an adaptation, but Shank harbors no concerns about that.

Negri (left) and Legge (right). Photos courtesy of IMSA
Negri (left) and Legge (right). Photos courtesy of IMSA

“There’s no problem except for the ABS brakes, it just takes a little time,” Shank explained. “They’re a really different experience for drivers that aren’t used to it. We worked quite a bit on our ABS since our last test to get it better and I think we’ve made pretty good gains in. That’s just another system in the car we’re improving all the time.

“The difference between the P drivers, like Kat and Ozz getting used to ABS, that’s something Lally, Segal, Dyer and Wilkins all have a bunch of ABS time in different cars across the board. The beauty is we brought people in with lots of experience with other brands of GT3 cars, so we know where the bar is, we know where we have to be shooting for.”

The staff needed for the two-car, factory-supported effort is also a change. While Shank’s prototype team did run two cars for a number of years, the team has been largely a single-car effort for the last three seasons.

“We’ve added six or seven new full-time people, so we’ll bring 34 to Daytona to support two cars, which is a lot,” Shank said. “That’s just from the MSR side. Then you have the whole HPD aero, mechanical and engine side, and then the group from Italy that built the cars. So there’s quite a force of people to support this car.

“Not only is the car getting stronger, but all those relationships – because that’s really the backbone of it – are getting stronger too. We’re getting to know each other, getting to understand how information travels, what it takes to get things done, prioritizing things. It’s a big, big program. Ultimately, the goal is to be able to sell the car to people and we need to get it to that point, and we will. It just takes time.”

And GTD as a whole stacks up as a huge class next year. Acura, Lexus and Mercedes join the party along with existing manufacturers Ferrari, Audi, Porsche, Lamborghini, BMW and potentially Aston Martin. That will make performance out of the gate for the cohesion of newness all the more important.

“If you look at all the competition, you’re really going to have to be good to be in the top-five, period, and check every category: pit stops, reliability, performance, you’ve got to work on the BOP thing, it’ll ebb and flow all year, I’m sure,” Shank said.

“They’re paying a lot more attention to fuel flows this year to try and get them equalized. That’s a big investment there. All the drivers, it’s very, very strong. But then again, across the board, the P category looks strong to me again, way stronger than it was predicted – and I’m happy to see that.

“So, in general, IMSA seems to have, to me, a lot of momentum going right now. Let’s see what we all do with it, but it seems pretty good.”

The one piece that’s meant so much to Shank – John Pew – will be a notable absence from the driving lineup. Pew went out on a high note as part of the winning lineup at Petit Le Mans in the team’s No. 60 Ligier JS P2 Honda.

However, that doesn’t mean the two haven’t been in touch. Far from it.

“Almost every week,” Shank said. “We were together for 10 whole seasons and every year for the last 10 years, it’s all exciting, new cars, new stuff, new cars and new programs. There’s a little withdrawal, I would say.

“It won’t surprise me at all if or when he’s going to race something again. He really changed our world, he really helped us a lot and we helped him. It’s a great relationship and if he wants to race again, we’ll be here for him.”

Sauber announces multi-year F1 engine deal with Ferrari

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Sauber will continue to race with Ferrari power units in Formula 1 next year after announcing a new, multi-year deal on Friday morning.

Sauber has enjoyed an engine supply from Ferrari since BMW pulled its factory support ahead of the 2010 season, but announced in April that it would be working with Honda from 2018.

The deal was thrown into doubt when CEO Monisha Kaltenborn left the team following a dispute with its owners, with ex-Renault F1 chief Frederic Vasseur drafted in to replace her.

Reports suggested that the Sauber owners were not keen on working with Honda in 2018, leading to the deal being canceled, as announced by the team on Thursday.

Less than 24 hours later, Sauber confirmed that a multi-year deal to use up-to-date Ferrari power units had been agreed, starting in 2018.

“I am very pleased to confirm that we will continue to work with Scuderia Ferrari as our engine supplier in form of a multi-year agreement,” Vasseur said.

“The shared experience between the Sauber F1 Team and Ferrari has built a strong foundation, which will allow us to move forward swiftly and efficiently, also in terms of the development of the 2018 car.

“I am convinced that together we can achieve the results which reflect the passion and determination that is, and always has been, behind the Sauber F1 Team.”

The confirmation of Ferrari power may open up a possible seat for one of its junior drivers for 2018, with Charles Leclerc and Antonio Giovinazzi both making strong cases to step up to F1.

It does, however, not appear to bode well for Mercedes-backed Pascal Wehrlein, who has led Sauber’s charge alongside Marcus Ericsson. The latter is understood to have links to the team’s owners, making his seat secure.

Ricciardo quickest as Red Bull leads opening Hungarian GP practice

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Daniel Ricciardo made a flying start to the Hungarian Grand Prix weekend by topping the opening Formula 1 practice session at the Hungaroring for Red Bull, beating rivals from the Ferrari and Mercedes teams.

Red Bull has been running as the third-fastest team for much of the F1 season so far behind Ferrari and Mercedes, but hoped to make up some ground in Hungary given the tight and twisting nature of the circuit on the outskirts of Budapest, suiting the RB13 chassis.

Ricciardo was able to live up to the hopes through FP1 by soundly beating the rival teams, recording a fastest lap of 1:18.486 to finish two-tenths of a second clear at the front of the pack.

The Australian was tailed by Ferrari’s Kimi Raikkonen in second place, with five-time Hungarian Grand Prix winner Lewis Hamilton taking third for Mercedes ahead of Max Verstappen in the second Red Bull.

Valtteri Bottas took fifth for Mercedes, while championship leader Sebastian Vettel wound up sixth, more than a second behind Ricciardo at the front.

McLaren enjoyed one of its strongest sessions of the season so far as both Fernando Alonso and Stoffel Vandoorne made the top 10, taking P7 and P8 respectively.

Renault was also able to get both of its drivers up into the top half of the order, with Nico Hulkenberg and Jolyon Palmer ending up ninth and 10th. Palmer did suffer a late crash that meant FP1 ended under a red flag, continuing his recent plight.

The session saw Alfonso Celis Jr. and Antonio Giovinazzi, development drivers at Force India and Haas respectively, get some track time, but things did not go entirely as planned.

Giovinazzi suffered a shunt that cut his session short, forcing the Italian to return to the paddock on foot and leave the Haas team with a quick repair job to complete ahead of second practice later today.

Porsche announces LMP1 withdrawal from FIA WEC

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Porsche has announced its withdrawal from the FIA World Endurance Championship’s LMP1 class, the top class, a year earlier than its current contract called it to.

The move comes after a high-profile meeting in Germany to evaluate the effectiveness of Porsche’s top-tier LMP1 program to the overall Porsche brand.

Additionally, Porsche has confirmed its entry into the FIA Formula E Championship from season six, starting in 2019.

This aligns with the company’s new electric direction focus for its product line, Porsche Strategy 2025, which will see Porsche develop a combination of pure GT vehicles and fully electric sports cars, such as the first fully electric Porsche model, based upon the Mission E concept car.

Porsche released the following statement today about the end of its LMP1 tenure:

“Building up the Le Mans team from scratch was a huge challenge. Over the years, we have developed an incredibly successful and professional team. This will be our basis going forward. I am certain that we will maintain our high level in Formula E. Confidence is high, and we are excited to get started,” said Fritz Enzinger, Vice President in charge of LMP1.

Porsche said it plans to keep the LMP1 team intact, including its factory drivers, elsewhere within the framework of the company. Additionally, the new mid-engined 911 RSR will continue in the GT ranks; the new car won its first race in the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship with Dirk Werner and Patrick Pilet at Lime Rock Park this past week.

The Porsche 919 Hybrid won the last three 24 Hours of Le Mans overall, taking its overall win total to a Le Mans record 19 wins. It’s also won the last two FIA World Endurance Championship LMP1 championships, with Mark Webber, Timo Bernhard and Brendon Hartley in 2015 and with Neel Jani, Romain Dumas and Marc Lieb last year.

The move leaves the FIA WEC’s marquee LMP1 class in a difficult position from 2018 and beyond, as Porsche joins fellow VAG brand Audi as a second manufacturer to withdraw from the top class in as many years.

Toyota is left as the single manufacturer, its contract good through 2019. But while LMP1 privateer has witnessed several announcements of new programs, how many actually materialize beyond the press releases into cars on the grid remains to be seen.

Despite the excitement over manufacturers in the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship’s Daytona Prototype international (DPi) formula, the DPis paired with the 2017-spec LMP2 cars in IMSA’s Prototype class, the Automobile Club de l’Ouest would need to allow DPis to race at Le Mans if they are to make an appearance in Europe. Right now, the cars are ineligible.

The GTE-Pro ranks will be bolstered with BMW’s arrival with the new M8 GTE, joining the existing four manufacturers there, and that will likely emerge as the series’ marquee class.

Porsche announces entry to Formula E for season six

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Porsche has announced that it will be joining the FIA Formula E grid in 2019, taking the 12th and final slot currently available.

In the same announcement that confirmed the closure of its LMP1 program at the end of the season, Porsche revealed that it would be moving into the all-electric series for the 2019/20 campaign with a factory-backed operation.

“Entering Formula E and achieving success in this category are the logical outcomes of our Mission
E road car program,” said Michael Steiner, Member of the Executive Board for Research and
Development at Porsche AG.

“The growing freedom for in-house technology developments makes Formula E attractive to us. Porsche is working with alternative, innovative drive concepts.

“For us, Formula E is the ultimate competitive environment for driving forward the development of high-performance vehicles in areas such as environmental friendliness, efficiency and sustainability.”

Porsche has held an interest in Formula E for some time, with many of its key motorsport bosses venturing to the recent races in Monaco and Berlin in order to undertake research regarding a possible entry.

Following Monday’s news that Mercedes would be taking up its option on an entry to Formula E for season six, Porsche’s arrival acts as another huge boost for the burgeoning electric championship, which already enjoys involvement from manufacturers such as Renault, Audi, BMW and Jaguar.

“I’m delighted to welcome Porsche to the FIA Formula E Championship,” Formula E CEO Alejandro Agag said. “If somebody told me when we started this project five years ago, that we’d be announcing a partnership with a brand like Porsche, I wouldn’t have believed it.

“To have a name like Porsche in Formula E, with all it represents in terms of racing and heritage – and in terms of sport cars – is an inflexion point in our quest to change the public perception about electric cars.

“The electric revolution continues, and Formula E remains the championship for that revolution.”

FIA president Jean Todt added: “Porsche is a brand which has a fantastic history in motorsport, and its intention to join the FIA Formula E Championship alongside so many of the world’s biggest car manufacturers is very positive.

“It’s clear that the hard work done to create a relevant laboratory for developing electric vehicle technologies has been successful, and I look forward to seeing Formula E continue to be a place of great sporting competition as well as innovation.

“I’m very happy that Porsche is coming to Formula E, but I regret their decision to leave the World Endurance Championship.”

The decision to end its LMP1 program and quit the FIA World Endurance Championship with one year still to run on its contract sees Porsche follow in the footsteps of sister Volkswagen Group brand Audi, which pulled a similar move less than 12 months ago.

Audi closed its long-running and hugely-successful LMP1 team at the end of last year in order to shift its focus to Formula E, enjoying works status with the ABT Schaeffler team from season four.

Porsche’s entry to Formula E marks its first foray into single-seater racing with a factory team since the end of its CART program in 1990.