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.”

Ricky Brabec wins 2017 Sonora Rally (PHOTOS, VIDEO)

Ricky Brabec wins Sonora Rally. Photo: Sonora Rally
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Honda rider Ricky Brabec, who won a stage at this year’s Dakar Rally, has captured the victory in last week’s Sonora Rally, held March 21-24 in Sonora, Mexico.

He led all four of the special stages in a start-to-finish romp for victory.

Despite Joan Barreda and Steve Hengeveld’s injuries that ruled them out of the rally, Brabec still had to focus on the job at hand.

“You are really racing against yourself out here, against the terrain,” he said in a release.  “I’m much more familiar now with open up a course than I was back in January at Dakar when I had to do it for the first time.”

Fellow Honda riders Mark Samuels and Andrew Short completed the podium. Samuels won the Sonora Rally’s Dakar Challenge, which presents a free opportunity for a rider to enter the 2018 Dakar Rally.

“The hard work of getting to Dakar is still ahead of me, but I will do everything in my power to make America proud,” Samuels said.

Polaris ATR rider Dave Sykes won the UTV class, with Eric Pucelik and Mike Shirley winning the Cars class.

On background, the Sonora Rally is the only event of its kind in North America. The rally raid format requires street legal vehicles to transit along untimed “liaison” sections and timed “special stages” over multiple days, with the lowest combined time winning the event. Now in its third year, the Sonora Rally realizes the vision of founders Scott Whitney and Darren Skilton to bring a world class rally raid event to these shores (2016 recap).

Brabec’s winning ride is captured in the below video, via Race-Dezert.

Meanwhile, because photos do this event more justice than words do, those are below (All Photos: Sonora Rally)

Webber: Alonso may not see out the season with McLaren

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Mark Webber never had the easiest time in Formula 1, particularly his latter years as the number two driver at Red Bull Racing to Sebastian Vettel.

That being said, he was never on the verge of leaving it directly until he announced his plans to move to Porsche’s LMP1 Team, where he raced for three years from 2014 to 2016 before retiring at the end of last season.

But the Australian pondered whether Fernando Alonso might not be able to see out the season with McLaren Honda, if the team and manufacturer’s woes continue.

“Alonso may not stay with the team,” Webber told Belgian outlet Sporza. “Maybe Stoffel (Vandoorne) soon will have a new teammate.”

“I could see it happen that Alonso does not drive out the season. He is very frustrated. Fernando doesn’t start for a sixth or seventh place; he wants to fight for the podium.”

Webber added that for Vandoorne’s sake, starting in a team with lower expectations might not be the worst thing for him. It may allow the Belgian rookie to learn without extra pressure, since the onus is focused on the team.

For Alonso though, time is of the essence for what’s left of his career in F1. This is his last season under contract with McLaren Honda and he made no secret of his frustration for how well he drove at Melbourne, yet the car wasn’t up for it.

“Well the race was good, one of my best races driving like that,” Alonso told NBCSN post-race. “The car’s uncompetitive and to be close for a point was a nice surprise. It was good fuel saving as well. I was surprised to keep it in the points. A suspension (issue) stopped us from getting this point.

“I feel very well prepared, driving at the best of my career, and I’m fighting for one point. That’s disappointing and frustrating. But so long as I’m driving at my best, it’s a problem for the team… not me.”

Rosberg, Button soak up their first weekends out of F1 (PHOTOS)

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Since 2008, Lewis Hamilton and Sebastian Vettel have won seven World Championships. The two drivers that won titles in that period not named Lewis Hamilton and Sebastian Vettel – Nico Rosberg (2016) and Jenson Button (2009) – were both enjoying their first weekends not on a Formula 1 grid as full-time drivers for the first time in more than a decade this weekend as the 2017 season commenced at Melbourne’s Albert Park.

Rosberg made a visit to preseason testing in Barcelona a few weeks ago for his first appearance as spectator since winning the World Championship. But he watched from home this weekend with his family and posted a few thoughts during both qualifying and the race:

We’re now quite familiar with Rosberg’s home TV set and coffee table. This is the first time Rosberg has been out of an F1 race since 2005, the year he won the first GP2 championship.

Button meanwhile paid a visit to California for the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series weekend at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana… once he got off his couch. He checked in with seven-time champion Jimmie Johnson at Fontana.

Do you guys know if there's anything good to watch on tele this weekend? @storm_and_rogue_pomskies

A post shared by Jenson Button (@jensonbutton_22) on

Given McLaren Honda’s struggles, Button is probably smart to have got out when he did. He’d been on the grid since 2000, save for a couple races out in 2005 when BAR-Honda was barred from competing after being disqualified from the San Marino Grand Prix.

Meanwhile for Rosberg, he watched as Mercedes was unable to win the season opener for the first time since 2013.

DJR Team Penske wins three of four Supercars races at Melbourne

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DJR Team Penske has won its first Virgin Australia Supercars Championship races over the weekend during the Australian Grand Prix, with Scott McLaughlin and Fabian Coulthard taking the first three wins in the four-race, non-championship race weekend.

While Penske’s teams have long succeeded in North America and have had some international success, notably a Formula 1 win at the 1976 Austrian Grand Prix with John Watson, success has thus far eluded them since arriving in Supercars two years ago as majority shareholders of Dick Johnson Racing.

McLaughlin had the honor of beating Coulthard to the first win in race one of the weekend, before Coulthard doubled up with wins in races two and three. The first two races were one-two finishes, though, and McLaughlin said he’d received a text from Roger Penske in the wake of the victory.

“I got a text from Roger straight away and they’re all pretty happy,” McLaughlin told Supercars.com.

“They’re thanking me but I should be thanking them for giving me the opportunity.”

The first race was marred by this incident between Nick Percat and Lee Holdsworth, Percat having lost his brakes entering Turn 1 and crashing into Holdsworth, who was an innocent bystander.

But once the race resumed, McLaughlin held off Coulthard for the victory.

Coulthard led from start-to-finish in race two after his second straight pole position. He did the same in race three, albeit not in a Penske 1-2 as Jamie Whincup came second for Red Bull Holden Racing Team Commodore. McLaughlin was third.

A left-front puncture stopped Coulthard making it three in a row in the fourth race, and with steering damage, McLaughlin was resigned to 17th. Chaz Mostert took the win his Supercheap Ford, ending his own winless spell that dated to August of 2015.

Also of note from the weekend, ex-IndyCar driver Simona de Silvestro in her Team Harvey Norman Nissan Altima finished 13th in race one, her best finish yet in her first full season in the series.

The Supercars series is back in action at Symmons Plains Raceway on April 7-9.  Coulthard sits second in the series championship, 51 points back of Whincup’s teammate, Shane van Gisbergen.