Photo: Tony DiZinno

Roar Before the Rolex 24 preview, pre-test notes

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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – “Spring break” isn’t traditionally until March, but the kickoff to spring – or at least a break from the dreary weather that populates most of the country in January – comes this weekend with the annual Roar Before the Rolex 24, the warmup act for the 55th Rolex 24 at Daytona on Jan. 28-29.

It’s an interesting test because no one really knows each other’s hand. A fail safe is meant to be in place by IMSA’s data collection system, which is designed to monitor each car’s outright performance in the hope that the fear of sandbagging – not giving outright 100 percent performance – is alleviated.

As such, the Roar isn’t necessarily a guaranteed determination of outright pace going into the Rolex 24, but it does provide a baseline of things to look for later this month when all the chips are on the line, and the Rolex watches will be awarded, for the season opener of both the full IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship season and the Tequila Patron North American Endurance Cup.

Some story lines to watch and observations of note are below:

THE FIRST TRUE TEST OF DPi VS. LMP2

Inevitably and invariably, even though both new prototype solutions (IMSA’s Daytona Prototype international and the worldwide for ACO-spec LMP2 chassis) are debuting simultaneously and under the Prototype category, equalizing two entirely separate platforms remains one of the bigger challenges.

An adjusted Balance of Performance table released on Wednesday should give the DPis (Cadillac DPi.V-R, Mazda RT24-P, Nissan Onroak DPi) a bit more power as the LMP2-spec cars are the baseline for BoP.

The joy and beauty, perhaps, is that certain cars will do better at certain tracks. Ultimate performance is still to come from the new beasts, and quick discussions with drivers from all three DPi models is that Daytona will only be the start of the journey in terms of pace and reliability. The LMP2-spec cars are built to the 2017 regulations from the existing constructors, and how well the five LMP2 cars (3 Oreca 07s, 1 Riley Mk. 30 and 1 Ligier JS P217) get on with the same engine yet different bodywork and aero, while also in the hands of newer teams, will be fascinating to watch.

TIMING IS EVERYTHING WHEN IT COMES TO RIDES… 

The most unfortunate news of the week thus far involves Spencer Pumpelly, last year’s Continental Tire SportsCar Challenge ST class champion, multiple-time GT class winner at the Rolex 24 and inarguably regarded as one of the top GT drivers in North America.

Through no fault of his own, Pumpelly is now left sidelined at the worst possible time for this year’s Rolex 24, as Change Racing announced late Wednesday his spot would be taken in the full-time lineup by Jeroen Mul, a Lamborghini-supported driver, as lead driver in the No. 16 Lamborghini Huracán GT3 alongside Corey Lewis, Brett Sandberg and Kaz Grala.

At the last minute with the likelihood that financial help came to Change with this change, Mul now has a seat that was earmarked for Pumpelly. It’s not Mul’s fault, nor is it the team’s for making the call it needed to do what it needed to do.

However, the timing is abysmal because it leaves Pumpelly almost no time left in order to find a spot for the Rolex 24. Most GTD seats are filled and while there are a handful of others available, Pumpelly’s problem now is the next dilemma – he’s a Gold-rated driver, and that would mean he could only go to a team where a Gold-rated vacancy exists. That means he’d have to be the second Platinum or Gold-rated driver in either a four or five-driver lineup; a car cannot carry more than two Platinum or Gold-rated drivers within the class.

This is eerily similar to last November, when Pumpelly was told by Park Place Motorsports he wouldn’t be retained for 2016, this despite being a major cog in Park Place winning that year’s season-ending Petit Le Mans. Park Place acquired a new Porsche 911 GT3 R for 2016, and with it came Porsche veteran Joerg Bergmeister in his place. Again, no one begrudges the likable and talented Bergmeister, and fortunately for Pumpelly, he found an opportunity with Change a month later.

Pumpelly is not alone when it comes to those pounding the pavement this weekend, but his lack of a seat considering his resume, ability, feedback and attitude can help any program he would join speaks volumes about the state of the class at the moment. His class, however, shone through in two tweets, thanking Change for the opportunity regardless:

Pumpelly’s unfortunate new position leads nicely to the next point:

ONSLAUGHT OF THE FACTORY DRIVERS IN GTD

The eight manufacturers in GTD (Audi, Acura, Lexus, Porsche, Lamborghini, Ferrari, Mercedes-AMG, BMW, Aston Martin) have a bevy of factory drivers. Of those eight, only three (Porsche, Ferrari, BMW) also have a corresponding GT Le Mans program, and thus a place for more of their factory drivers.

That means the rest are placed into GTD, which has a two-pronged effect. The first is that it raises the caliber of the class because it provides a factory presence among most cars on the grid, while the second is that it then reduces the number of opportunities for North American sports car veteran “hired guns,” who make a living at least partially – if not almost entirely – from driving race cars.

It’s easier to count the cars on the grid where there is not a factory driver placed somewhere, as either the lead pro driver or as the Platinum/Gold-rated fourth driver. Consider the likes of Mul, Paolo Ruberti, Andrea Caldarelli, Mirko Bortolotti (Lamborghini), Sam Bird (Ferrari), Adam Christodoulou and Thomas Jaeger (Mercedes-AMG), Pierre Kaffer (Audi), Patrick Long (Porsche), so on and so forth, and you’re seeing that spots reserved for would be “hired guns” are now going to those drivers employed by the factory first.

Long and Kaffer excepted, none have much in the way of full-season North American experience, and the same two plus Bird are not well known in America, except to the hardest of hardcore fans. Again, it’s no knock on them personally, but it’s painfully obvious to witness how many factory supported or extra star drivers are there for one-offs in place of those who’d ordinarily be in contention for seats, and who’ve spent years in North American sports car paddocks.

That then has an additional knock-on effect where the remaining vacancy is one for a Silver-rated driver, which creates more competition among the Silver or Bronze-rated drivers for the remaining handful of seats. Inevitably there are more of these drivers – because strangely, getting downgraded makes you more valuable to potential teams – than there are seats available.

THE WATCH FOR NEW LIVERIES

The Roar provides a great opportunity to study and memorize the new-for-2017 liveries, or in some cases, same liveries just updated to 2017 cars and models. Not all teams are in their finalized liveries yet this test – Tequila Patron ESM for instance will reveal its livery after the Roar – but most will be.

OTHER PRE-ROAR THURSDAY NOTES

  • Speaking of factory drivers, although not formally confirmed, Michael Christensen’s name was listed on the No. 28 Alegra Motorsports Porsche 911 GT3 R alongside the quartet of Daniel Morad, Jesse Lazare, Michael and Carlos de Quesada. Christensen would be the second Porsche factory driver placed into GTD (Long with CORE autosport).
  • Other names that appeared today on cars that weren’t on the entry list: Giancarlo Fisichella and James Calado (No. 62 Risi Competizione Ferrari 488 GTE), Marco Sorensen (No. 98 Aston Martin V12 Vantage GT3), Roberto Pampanini, Christoph Lenz, Milos Pavlovic (No. 61 GRT Grasser Race Team Lamborghini Huracán GT3). Turner Motorsport (No. 97 BMW M6 GT3) and DAC Motorsports (No. 18 Lamborghini Huracán GT3) were the only two cars present in the paddock with no drivers listed whatsoever. Expect one other change to show up soon for another GTD car.
  • Of the two U.S.-based Ford Chip Ganassi Ford GTs, the No. 66 car can be distinguished with a white windshield banner with black font and red ends, while the No. 67 car is the opposite – black windshield banner and white font. The U.K.-based Nos. 68 and 69 cars should appear with their windshield colors on Friday.

WeatherTech Championship practice runs from 10:20 a.m. to 12:05 p.m., and 3 to 5:30 p.m. ET on Friday. The Continental Tire SportsCar Challenge also has two sessions, with the first starting at 9 a.m.

Vettel: Front-row grid slot for Australia proof of Ferrari’s progress

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Sebastian Vettel believes that his charge to second place on the grid for Sunday’s Australian Grand Prix acts as proof of the progress Ferrari’s Formula 1 operation has made over the winter.

Vettel arrived in Australia as one of the favorites to take pole following an impressive showing in pre-season testing, prompting three-time champion Lewis Hamilton to name Ferrari as the leading team.

Hamilton rallied in qualifying to take pole position for Mercedes, beating Vettel by two-tenths of a second, but the Ferrari driver managed to fend off Valtteri Bottas in the second Silver Arrow and clinch a front-row berth.

The result marked Ferrari’s best qualifying result since the 2015 Singapore Grand Prix – Vettel’s and Ferrari’s last pole and victory in F1 – and the German was encouraged by the result.

“I think we have a good car. I think we are working well as a team,” Vettel said.

“Things are improving. Obviously it’s nice to see that things are working, the car is working. I had a mixed day yesterday, but the confidence in the car was there from testing and I think we showed that again today.”

Vettel conceded that he felt his final lap in qualifying could have been faster, but doubts it would have been enough to catch pole-sitter Hamilton.

“In the end I was not entirely happy with my lap. I was pretty happy with the end, maybe not so much with the opening of the lap where we lost a bit too much,” Vettel said.

“But I think Lewis did a very good lap. I would have loved to, but I don’t think pole was up for grabs. Tomorrow I think we can do something in the race. The car feels good, we’ve improved it so the pace should be much better than it was yesterday when we had practice.

“It’s been a big winter for us, lots of change we’ve gone through as a team in the last 12 months, and for the better. I think the team is getting stronger.

“Obviously everyone is pushing very hard and it’s not so easy to come here with a long journey to get to Australia, but I think people are fired up and we are motivated for tomorrow.

“I think it’s the first good opportunity.”

Hamilton buoyed by sixth Australia F1 pole, ready for tight race

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Three-time Formula 1 world champion Lewis Hamilton was buoyed by his charge to pole position in Australian Grand Prix qualifying on Saturday, but is braced for a tight race at the front of the pack.

Hamilton saw off a challenge from Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel and new Mercedes teammate Valtteri Bottas to capture his sixth pole at Albert Park, and the 62nd of his F1 career.

Hamilton had doubts over Mercedes’ advantage over Ferrari heading into the new year, making his charge to pole all the more meaningful as he paid tribute to the team members after qualifying.

“It’s been a fantastic weekend so far. It’s quite amazing to come here for I think the 11th time, and it feels like it was only yesterday that I came here and had my first race here in 2007,” Hamilton said.

“I’m just incredibly proud of my team. This rule change has been huge and such a massive challenge for everyone. The guys have just worked so hard to make this car what it is today.”

Despite taking pole by almost three-tenths of a second in Q3, Hamilton is braced for a close fight on Sunday with Vettel and Bottas, the latter starting his first race for Mercedes from third on the grid.

“Valtteri did a fantastic job given it’s his first qualifying session with the team. He did a great job and it’s great for Mercedes,” Hamilton said.

“Looking forward to the race, it’s close between us all. As you can see, there’s going to be a tight race this year I think.

“I think tomorrow is about putting all the work that’s gone in over the winter, all the work that’s gone through testing and this whole weekend and really put it to work tomorrow.

“I’ll make sure I get a good night’s sleep and come back tomorrow stronger than ever.”

The Australian Grand Prix is live on NBCSN and the NBC Sports App from midnight ET on Sunday.

Lewis Hamilton sees off Vettel challenge to take Australian GP pole

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Lewis Hamilton saw off challenges from Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel and Mercedes teammate Valtteri Bottas to pick up the first Formula 1 pole position of the year in Australian Grand Prix qualifying.

Hamilton topped the timesheets on Friday to give Mercedes hope of continuing its impressive qualifying form from 2016, when it took 20 poles from 21 races.

However, Ferrari looked poised to strike and take its first pole position since Singapore 2015 as Vettel led final practice, setting up a close battle in qualifying.

Hamilton took provisional pole with his first Q3 run, going three-tenths faster than Vettel, and was able to find a further three-tenths on his second run to make pole all but his.

Vettel refused to back down, producing a rapid final sector to gain plenty of time on Hamilton, but it was not enough to deny the Briton his 62nd F1 pole.

On his Mercedes debut, Bottas put in an impressive display to take third on the grid, finishing three-tenths off Hamilton’s time. Fellow Finn Kimi Raikkonen ended the session fourth in the second Ferrari.

Max Verstappen led Red Bull’s charge in fifth, while Haas driver Romain Grosjean put in a stellar display to take sixth on the grid. Felipe Massa will start his comeback race from seventh ahead of the Toro Rosso pair of Carlos Sainz Jr. and Daniil Kvyat.

Local favorite Daniel Ricciardo’s difficult home race weekend continued as he crashed out at Turn 14, wrecking the rear of his Red Bull RB13. While Ricciardo was physically unharmed, the Australian’s ego was left bruised as he was resigned to starting the race from 10th on the grid.

Sporting is bright pink livery, Force India failed to light up the gloomy conditions in Melbourne as it suffered a double-elimination in Q2. Sergio Perez qualified 11th, while rookie teammate Esteban Ocon will make his first start in Australia from 14th on the grid. Nico Hulkenberg saw his 13-race streak of Q3 appearances ended as he could only qualify P12.

One of the biggest talking points from the early part of qualifying was Fernando Alonso’s titanic effort to put his McLaren-Honda 13th on the grid. Following a tough winter marred by reliability issues, Alonso dragged his car through to Q2 and did “all he could”, yet the issues faced by the team meant no Q3 berth was forthcoming.

Sauber enjoyed an impressive start to the year as Marcus Ericsson made it through to Q2, eventually qualifying 15th. Last-minute substitute Antonio Giovinazzi was poised to also get out of Q1 on debut, only for a mistake on his final lap to leave him 16th overall.

Haas driver Kevin Magnussen failed to get in a late lap, leaving him 17th on the grid for his first race with the American team, while a fuel flow issue meant Stoffel Vandoorne could only qualify 18th for McLaren.

Lance Stroll’s baptism of fire in F1 continued as he finished 2.9 seconds off the pace in P19 for Williams, while Renault’s Jolyon Palmer was made to pay for his lack of track time, rounding out the grid in P20.

The Australian Grand Prix is live on NBCSN and the NBC Sports App from midnight ET.

Lance Stroll set for Australia grid penalty after gearbox change

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Formula 1 rookie Lance Stroll has been forced into a gearbox change ahead of qualifying for the Australian Grand Prix following a crash in final practice at Albert Park.

Stroll lost the back-end of his Williams FW40 car coming out of Turn 10, hitting the wall and causing damage to the right-hand side and rear of his chassis in the process.

The crash brought out a red flag that ultimately caused FP3 to end early, with Stroll returning to the pit lane on the back of a marshal’s moped.

After bringing the car back to the pit lane, Williams confirmed that it would have to change Stroll’s gearbox ahead of qualifying, which will trigger a five-place grid penalty for the Canadian.

Stroll’s crash comes after a mixed pre-season program that saw him suffer three shunts in the opening week in Barcelona, raising concerns about his readiness for F1.

Stroll bounced back in the second week of running, racking up plenty of mileage in Williams’ 2017 car to back up his extensive private test program in the team’s 2014-spec F1 car last year.

At just 18 years old, Stroll is set to become the second-youngest F1 driver on Sunday, trailing only Red Bull’s Max Verstappen whose first start came at the age of 17 in 2015.