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Off season? What off season? 2017’s racing year starts next week

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The motorsport off-season is an ever-shrinking phenomenon.

While we’ve all enjoyed our fill of food and drink over the holiday period and enjoyed the other festivities that come with this time of year, those involved in racing will have been conscious that the new season is just around the corner.

And by ‘just around the corner’, I actually mean ‘next week’.

It doesn’t really feel like we’ve had much of a break from racing. The Formula 1 season came to a close in Abu Dhabi at the end of November, with the two weeks that followed then being consumed by the fallout from Nico Rosberg’s shock retirement.

Mercedes was then good enough to confirm that there would be no announcement until the new year, giving the media some respite over the holidays by removing the worry of Valtteri Bottas being named as Rosberg’s replacement while we were tucking into turkey.

But news has still been filing through in the meantime. Ferrari is already planning for 2017 by signing Antonio Giovinazzi as a third driver and confirming a date for its new car launch. Pirelli also got in on the act by confirming its tire picks for Australia and China.

Throw in announcements for the Rolex 24 at Daytona, more drivers signing up for the Race of Champions and even an IndyCar baby arriving, and you can see that December has still been a busy month for racing despite there being nothing of note on-track.

And so with January comes the start of another racing campaign, starting on January 2 with the fearsome Dakar Rally. Taking place in South America over a 12-day period, this battle of endurance will kickstart 2017 in motorsport.

Speaking of endurance, next weekend also marks the start of the American racing season with the Roar Before the Rolex 24 at Daytona International Speedway. The traditional three-day test ahead of the Rolex 24 will allow the field to dial in ahead of the twice-around-the-clock classic at the end of January.

Formula E also breaks from its winter slumber next weekend with the inaugural Vegas eRace, a unique event that will see the 20 regular drivers from the series go up against 10 of the world’s best sim racers for a prize pool totaling $1 million.

Besides the Rolex 24, the end of January will also see the Race of Champions take place in Miami, with drivers from a variety of disciplines going up against each other in a number of challenges for both individual and national honors.

Last year saw Sebastian Vettel take the drivers’ title in London, while Team GB was victorious in the team event. However, with a strong American presence from IndyCar, NASCAR and even rallycross in Miami, expect to see the star-spangled banner somewhere on the podium, if not the top step.

The European racing season may not truly burst into life until April, given the chilly climate, but the first major event takes place on the January 21-22 weekend with Rally Monte-Carlo, the curtain-raiser for the FIA World Rally Championship.

Following Volkswagen’s shock exit from the series, World Champion Sebastien Ogier has jumped ship to Ford’s M-Sport team. With new regulations and a number of rising stars in the series, the Frenchman will have a serious fight on his hands in his bid for a fifth title in 2017.

So as you can see, the off-season isn’t really ‘off’ at all. There’s always something going on – but would we have it any other way?

IMSA: Sebring Day 2 of two-day test notebook

Photo courtesy of IMSA
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Testing across several IMSA sanctioned series continued at Sebring International Raceway on Tuesday as preparations continue for next month’s events during the weekend of the Mobil 1 12 Hours of Sebring.

Below are highlights from Day 2 of testing around the 3.74-mile road course.

Eurosport Racing Continues Work with Mazda Prototype Challenge Chassis

Teams in the Prototype Challenge Presented by Mazda championship completed their second day of testing on Tuesday. Among them, Eurosport Racing continued their work with the only Mazda Prototype Challenge (MPC) entries in the field, in the hands of drivers Dr. Tim George (in the No. 24 entry) and Jon Brownson (in the No. 34).

“Right now, I’m driving by myself so we’re trying to make the car comfortable enough to last an hour and 45 minutes with just me in the car,” George said of their preparation efforts. “We’re trying to set up the car where it’s quick, yet it and can last, both the car and for me to make sure we don’t tire out, get fatigued and make mistakes.”

The 1 hour 45 minute window that George referenced represents the race times for the 2018 season, up considerably from last year’s sprint format that featured a pair of 45-minute races across a race weekend.

Though that change represents a drastic shift in driving philosophy, it is one that George welcomes.

“The new rules for the endurance races are great, I enjoy it a lot,” said George. “It gives you a chance to think through things differently with strategy. It also gives you a chance if you blow it…in a sprint race if you make a mistake you don’t get a chance to come back.”

Florida Drivers in Continental Tire Challenge Eager for Hometown Race at Sebring

A strong contingent of drivers from Florida are represented in the Continental Tire SportsCar Challenge, and next month’s 12 Hours of Sebring weekend will see them compete on home soil.

“I grew up in Tallahassee and I live in Orlando now, so Sebring has been my home track since day one,” said Paul Holton, driver of the No. 76 Compass Racing McLaren GT4, which finished 14th at the season-opening race at Daytona International Speedway. “I’ve spent a lot of time down here and really enjoy the place. It’s a nice, quaint little town not far from Orlando so it’s a quick, easy drive down for me.”

Fellow Floridian Ramin Abdolvahabi, a native of Palm Beach Gardens, Florida and driver of the No. 09 Automatic Racing Aston Martin Vantage, revealed that, even though Sebring is only two hours from his hometown, this week’s test was his first time at the track in two years.

“I haven’t been here for two years, so coming back is like coming home,” he said. “It’s a fantastic track and it’s one of the iconic tracks in the world so being at Sebring – a small town, my hometown, welcoming – it’s fantastic. I went on the track a couple of times yesterday and it’s just like wearing an old shoe, it just fits and it’s fantastic. Hopefully, the race will go well and the weather will hold, so anyone who’s out there, come and see us!”

Frank Raso Trades in Airplanes for Porsches at Sebring

Several IMSA drivers boast “day jobs” outside of their racing gigs. Among them, Frank Raso’s work falls outside of ordinary jobs like doctor or lawyer. Rather, Raso flies airplanes for a living.

“I’m an airline pilot for a major airline,” said Raso, who tested the No. 10 Topp Racing Porsche 911 GT3 Cup car at Sebring. “I’ve been flying for almost 30 years, and it’s allowed me, with all my time off and things like that to do this and fall back into racing again. I messed with it a little bit when I was younger, but it was, of course, expensive, so I got away from it for a while. I decided I wanted to get back into it in kind of my last couple of years before I get too old.”

Raso explained that the skills he practices while flying planes are more than transferable to his driving duties in a Porsche GT3 Cup car.

“Flying an airliner or flying any airplane, we have checklists, but everything is kind of done in order. It’s almost in a robot fashion type of a thing where you do this, you do this, you do this and you have to make sure you hit all your marks and fly the airplane with precision.

“So, when you get in these Cup cars, with no anti-lock brakes, no traction control, and no driver assist items, you have to make sure you hit your marks, when you’re accelerating, when you’re turning in. You have to be alert. It keeps your wits about you. The car can step out at any time. They’re a very difficult car to drive, but they’re a lot of fun.”
The 54-year-old Raso posted a best finish of fourth, on four separate occasions, in a part-time schedule during the 2017 Porsche GT3 Cup Challenge USA by Yokohama season as a competitor in the Gold Cup class.
Newcomers Get Taste of Porsche GT3 Cup Challenge
A number of new drivers got to sample Porsche GT3 Cup Challenge cars during the two days of testing at Sebring. Among them was amateur racer Scott Welham, who got his first taste of professional racing during the two-day outing at Sebring.
And he had a strong support system backing him up in the Kelly-Moss Road and Race team, the defending Porsche GT3 Cup Challenge champions with driver Jake Eidson.
“Here, you’ve got somebody that actually does coaching, data acquisition, track management – these are all separate people – plant manager, owner, a car-setup guy, you’ve got someone that bills you – which isn’t always a good thing, but you know, you just have that huge, huge support group that enables you to focus on driving,” Welham said of the team’s influence on his development over the two days.
IMSA’s next visit to Sebring will be for the Mobil 1 12 Hours of Sebring on March 17.