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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.

WATCH LIVE: Indy Carb Day, then NASCAR AMERICA from 11a ET, NBCSN

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The busiest and greatest weekend in motorsports takes place this weekend from Monaco, Indianapolis and Charlotte, and you can see quite a bit of it today on NBCSN from 11 a.m. ET. The live stream link is here, via the NBC Sports App.

Indianapolis 500 Carb Day coverage will run from 11 a.m. through to 3:30 p.m. ET, in several chunks:

  • IndyCar final practice for the 101st Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil runs from 11 a.m. to noon ET. Kevin Lee, Townsend Bell and Paul Tracy will be in the booth with Marty Snider, Jon Beekhuis, Katie Hargitt and Robin Miller on pit lane.
  • From there, at noon, it’s the marquee race of the Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires season – the Freedom 100. With finishes of 0.0024 (2016, Dean Stoneman over Ed Jones), 0.0026 (2013, Peter Dempsey over three others) and 0.005 (2014, Gabby Chaves over Matthew Brabham), the Freedom 100 is known for fantastic and close finishes. Lee and Anders Krohn will be in the booth with Hargitt and Beekhuis reporting from the pits. The starting grid for that is linked here.
  • At 2 p.m. ET, it’s the Indy Pit Stop Competition, with the IndyCar crew back in for that. While some of the bigger teams are usually the ones that wins this, others such as Mikhail Aleshin for Schmidt Peterson Motorsports and Sage Karam for Dreyer & Reinbold Racing have stolen the show in this competition in recent years.

The coverage from Indianapolis runs for those four and a half hours, and leads straight into the now-annual NASCAR AMERICA Motorsports Special, which features live coverage from NBC crews in all of Indianapolis, Monaco and Charlotte and runs from 3:30 to 5 p.m. ET on NBCSN. A standard NASCAR AMERICA show runs from 5 to 6 p.m. ET.

Among the items to look forward to from Indy and Monaco in that show:

  • An update on Fernando Alonso’s crazy month of May, ahead of his first Indianapolis 500
  • Robin Miller tours the A.J. Foyt Exhibit at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Museum
  • A look at Will Power, the dad, and the change that’s come to his life
  • From Monaco, a look at this season’s stellar battle between Lewis Hamilton and Sebastian Vettel
  • A look at the magic of Monaco and a simulation of the track

As a reminder, here’s the IndyCar times from this weekend, and a link to the F1 times as well.

Alonso vs. ‘The Other 32’ hits Indy Media Day, plus Thursday notes

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INDIANAPOLIS – Sebastian Saavedra served as the perfect foil for the attention generated by Fernando Alonso on media day ahead of this year’s 101st Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil.

The Colombian driver was never going to be the driver to generate the most attention on this day. He starts 31st and hasn’t started an IndyCar race since the Sonoma season finale in 2015.

But being sat next to Alonso? It gave the impression poor Seb – himself about to start his sixth Indy 500 and a first with Juncos Racing as it makes its debut – was a lost soul in the wrong room, instead of one of his fellow competitors.

Saavedra could well have been speaking for “the other 32” – the drivers not named Alonso racing in 2017 – when he talked about what it meant to be back in this race after missing it for one year, and the preparation that will already begin for the 2018 ‘500, starting Monday.

“We don’t run just to run,” Saavedra, driver of Juncos’ No. 17 AFS Chevrolet, told NBC Sports. “Something needs to make sense. Coming into this year we came in with a different mentality; to build something for the future.

“When you’re not here, you miss this place. On Monday, we want everything to start up again for next year.”

In video and photographic form, the contrast between Saavedra and the scrum around Alonso’s place is captured below (or by satirist, @nascarcasm, here).

Media day inevitably serves up a series of quotes, banter and other topics from the field that we’ll flesh out over the next 48 hours on Friday and Saturday on MotorSportsTalk. As you can see below, here’s some of the facial expressions from the rest of the runners.

In other notes from the last couple days:

  • Team Penske continues to honor its legends. At its now annual Shell media lunch on Thursday, Penske has inducted legendary mechanic Karl Kainhofer and four-time Indianapolis 500 champion Rick Mears into Penske’s Hall of Fame. Both icons of Penske’s legacy were awarded plaques of honor to join Penske himself and the late Mark Donohue, inducted upon the Penske Hall of Fame’s 2016 debut.
  • This event saw all five of Penske’s drivers speak, and was the second Penske sponsor event in as many days. The first, held at an event at a house in Speedway on Wednesday, saw Verizon debut its 5G LTE technology in-home, done in partnership with Ericsson. Will Power was on hand to witness the public debut of the 5G Smart House; the house is outfitted with wireless technology and ridiculous speed, which also included a Virtual Reality component.
  • We have a pace car driver. Chevrolet announced Thursday that actor Jeffrey Dean Morgan, who has played major roles in hit television series such as “The Walking Dead” and “Grey’s Anatomy,” will drive the 2017 Chevrolet Corvette Grand Sport Pace Car to lead the starting field of the 101st Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil to the green flag Sunday, May 28.
  • The Indy Lights race has a bevy of potential surprise winners. The front row features Matheus Leist, set to run his first ever oval race, Colton Herta, who is set for his first big oval race, and two more Andretti teammates in Dalton Kellett and Ryan Norman who looked great in traffic on Monday. Leist’s Carlin teammate Zachary Claman De Melo is another wild card; the Canadian has a “Jekyll & Hyde” nature to him. Then Aaron Telitz had to deal with a bit of mist and rain on his qualifying run and will start sixth. With the top two drivers in points starting 11th and 13th (Kyle Kaiser and Nico Jamin), it’s a fascinating day on tap.

Watch all of Indianapolis Carb Day coverage and the Freedom 100 starting at 11 a.m. ET on NBCSN.

Stefan Johansson’s latest blog: Previewing Indy 500, Monaco GP

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It’s open-wheel racing’s biggest weekend of the year this weekend, with the Indianapolis 500 and Monaco Grand Prix on tap.

It also gives a chance to check in with Stefan Johansson for the latest blog as he chats with Jan Tegler, previewing both marquee events on the Verizon IndyCar Series and Formula 1 calendars. Johansson raced at Monaco five times and Indy four times.

First off, Johansson describes how impressive the qualifying run was by Scott Dixon, as he’s on the pole for the race.

“Getting the pole at Indy again is great obviously, and it was a mighty run from Scott for sure. Indy qualifying is not easy under any circumstance. But to go out cold without even one lap in practice all day – he went straight from qualifying on Saturday to qualifying on Sunday – in a car that you have no idea about in terms of how it will perform, that’s impressive.

“Everybody is trying to trim their cars to the absolute limit and I think Scott and his engineer Chris Simmons went all out this time. Scott said he had a small breather in turn 2 every lap just keep the front tight and he was still doing 232 laps so the car must have been extremely light on downforce. Typically, if you have to lift anywhere on the four lap run the time won’t hold up.”

After Fernando Alonso’s taken to the Speedway, here’s Johansson’s thoughts on how he’s gone so far:

“With Alonso being there this year as well, I think a lot more people that normally would not tune in are going to realize again how incredibly exciting it is and how great IndyCar racing and the Indy 500, in particular, are. It’s an outstanding event and qualifying is really an event in itself, apart from the race.

“Alonso also mentioned that he wants to be a “complete driver” which I think is fantastic coming from him. I think his involvement this year could start a trend. I’m sure he’s loved every minute of this experience so far.”

Here’s what Johansson thinks of the magic of race day morning, which is something Alonso is set to experience for the first time on Sunday.

“I remember the first time I raced there, walking out onto the grid for the first time after having been there all month and it’s amazing. Qualifying has a pretty good crowd but when you walk out onto the grid on Sunday morning before the start you suddenly see this mountain of people in front of you. I get goosebumps just thinking about it. It’s an incredible experience.”

MONTMELO, SPAIN – MAY 14: Sebastian Vettel of Germany driving the (5) Scuderia Ferrari SF70H and Lewis Hamilton of Great Britain and Mercedes GP talk in the post race press conference during the Spanish Formula One Grand Prix at Circuit de Catalunya on May 14, 2017 in Montmelo, Spain. (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)

And after a dramatic Spanish Grand Prix, here was Johansson’s take on the Ferrari vs. Mercedes battle and his take on how Ferrari managed to muck up strategy for Sebastian Vettel in Barcelona.

“It boggles my mind why Ferrari didn’t stop when there was a VSC. That’s race strategy-101. If you have a virtual safety period and you’re in a pit stop window, you have to stop.

“I am not 100 percent clear if the pits were closed during the safety car period or not, in which case maybe Vettel passed the pits as the track went green and Hamilton being 8 seconds behind was able to duck in just as Vettel passed the green flag.

“It’s fantastic that the championship is so close and we now have two teams fighting for the title.”

You can read the full blog post here, for even more insight.

2017 columns:

Additionally, a link to Johansson’s social media channels and #F1TOP3 competition are linked here.

Indy field keen to beat him, but agree Alonso Indy 500 win would boost IndyCar globally

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INDIANAPOLIS – Graham Rahal wants to win Sunday’s Indianapolis 500. If not him, he’d like to see a Honda driver in victory lane.

Ditto for James Hinchcliffe, who’d like to win but would also be happy to see a Honda winner, as well.

Will Power is also of the same mindset. If he can’t win, he’d like one of his Team Penske teammates take the checkered flag.

But those same drivers interviewed by NBC Sports Thursday at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, are also well aware of the potential impact of having two-time Formula 1 World Champion Fernando Alonso in the race.

And make no mistake, even though this is Alonso’s first foray into IndyCar and oval racing, when it comes to Sunday’s race, he’s in it to win it. And some of the drivers he’ll challenge for the ‘500 win are well aware of that.

“Obviously, selfishly, for a lot of us, we hope he doesn’t,” Rahal said with a smile.

Rahal then grew serious, adding, “But I’m not going to lie to you, he’s driving the same car Townsend (Bell) drove last year, which was one of the favorites to win until the pit lane accident. So it’s a fast car, it’s a good machine, I’ve worked with some of his mechanics in the past.

“They’re quality guys. It wouldn’t surprise me. He’s going to be in the hunt. But I hope it just continues to draw more eyes. I think he’s had a great time here this month. It would be great to have him continue to come back, amongst others. Clearly, we hope one of the regulars wins this thing, there’s a lot of guys that deserve a lot of credit and maybe have been overlooked this month, but that’s just part of it. We’ll see what happens Sunday.”

Hinchcliffe also wants to win Sunday, but knows Alonso brings an additional dynamic to the table that is kind of a mixed blessing.

“That’s one of those bittersweet situations,” Hinchcliffe said with a chuckle. “Obviously, it would be a tremendous amount of coverage for IndyCar and the Indianapolis 500, but if a rookie comes in and wins it on pace, it just makes us look a bit silly.

“Now, if you’re going to be made to look silly, if it’s going to happen at the hands of Fernando Alonso, you’ll sleep a little bit better at night because he’s pretty much the greatest living racing driver.

“The fact of the matter is he’s got a really good shot at it, man. He’s been incredible. There’s a lot of difficult situations that you get put into during a 500-mile race here or in practice and we’ve watched him handle them like a seasoned veteran. It’s been very impressive, honestly. He’s in one of the best cars, he’s starting near the front (middle of Row 2), he’s got as good a shot as anyone.”

In addition to Alonso’s massive talent, Hinchcliffe has also been impressed at the Spanish driver’s personality.

“He’s super down to earth, very friendly and has really embraced this experience,” Hinchcliffe said. “The IndyCar paddock is a very different world from the F1 paddock.

“I know for a fact that there are a lot of (F1) drivers that wouldn’t handle the atmosphere here very well, but Fernando hasn’t been like that. He’s embraced the whole experience, the fan interaction we have, which is a massive degree higher than what you see in F1. He’s been an awesome addition to the field. I hope it’s not the last IndyCar race that we see him at.”

And then there’s Will Power, who has an IndyCar championship trophy on his mantle, but not the Borg-Warner Indy 500 winner’s trophy.

Power feels he has a good chance to finally break through and win the Greatest Spectacle In Racing. But he also knows Alonso presents a formidable challenge in addition to the regular IndyCar drivers he does battle with in every series race.

But Power agrees with his counterparts that an Alonso win would bring a great deal of worldwide attention that would provide a big boost of attention and popularity into the IndyCar Series.

“I think you’d have a new group of Spanish fans if Alonso happened to win the race, plus a lot of interest from Europe, which there already is,” Power said. “He definitely has the car and the capability to do it – but so does a lot of people in the field.”

When asked if he can relate his own first 500 (finished 13th in 2008) to that of Alonso, Power said it was completely apples to oranges.

“It’s not similar,” Power said. “When I came here the first time, the team had never raced ovals and we got the car two weeks before the first race of the season and had no idea of the setup. And my engineer had never run ovals, either.

“(Alonso’s) been placed with one of the best teams, one of the best cars and much more experience. I would have dreamed of having that experience in my first time. It would have made it much easier and given me way more confidence on the oval.”

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