Rebellion Racing. All photos courtesy of IMSA

Roar Before the Rolex 24 recap, notes, musings, observations

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The Roar Before the Rolex 24 test this weekend at Daytona International Speedway offered up a bevy of news, nuggets and other tidbits. Here’s a link to all times.

This test offered up a good appetizer of what’s to come before the main course, the 55th running of the Rolex 24 at Daytona itself, Jan. 28-29. And to get the other obvious note from the weekend out of the way, it was cold.

Further posts from interviews will follow in the coming days. In the meantime, here’s some notes below:

FASSLER’S LUCKY ESCAPE

Photo courtesy of IMSA
Photo courtesy of IMSA

The hair-raising moment of the weekend came on Sunday with a fuel line triggering a fire to the No. 4 Corvette C7.R, and Marcel Fassler escaping uninjured. Per a statement from Jim Campbell, Chevrolet U.S Vice President, Performance Vehicles and Motorsports, the damage was limited to the engine compartment of the car and as a precaution, the No. 3 Corvette was withdrawn for the remainder of the weekend.

Coincidentally, the No. 4 Corvette also suffered a smaller fire in last year’s Roar. Things turned out just fine the rest of the year, starting with the car’s win in a photo finish at the Rolex 24, a follow-up win at Sebring, Corvette Racing’s 100th win overall at Lime Rock, a dramatic win at Road America and the GT Le Mans class championship for Fassler’s co-drivers, Oliver Gavin and Tommy Milner.

ORECA’S STRONG START

No. 81 DragonSpeed Oreca 07 and No. 52 PR1/Mathiasen Motorsports Ligier JS P217. Photo courtesy of IMSA
No. 81 DragonSpeed Oreca 07 and No. 52 PR1/Mathiasen Motorsports Ligier JS P217. Photo courtesy of IMSA

The new Oreca 07 makes its race debut at the Rolex 24, as the successor to the previous generation Oreca 05. Oreca’s last top-line outing in the Prototype class at Daytona came in 2014, when the Oreca 03R – the open-top version – came in best of the LMP2-spec cars up against the Daytona Prototypes in the first race of the merged IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship, in fifth place fielded by Muscle Milk Pickett Racing.

This Oreca, built to the new-for-2017 LMP2 regulations, led six of the seven sessions. Rebellion Racing’s No. 13 car got down to a best time of 1:38.408 in the seventh and final session, with that car out front in sessions one, two, four, five and seven. Neel Jani was the car’s workhorse driver with his Rolex 24 teammates, Nick Heidfeld, Sebastien Buemi and Stephane Sarrazin, all in Las Vegas through Saturday for the Visa Las Vegas eRace. Elton Julian’s DragonSpeed team got one over for the fastest time overall, with Ben Hanley in at 1:38.343 in session six to finish as the fastest time overall.

JDC/Miller Motorsports also threatened the leaders with its Oreca 07 to keep pace, and ended ninth on the combined timesheets at 1:39.167. That team’s lineup is probably a notch below the two assembled from Rebellion and DragonSpeed, but it also enters this race knowing how to win the Rolex 24, having won in PC last year. Pace is one thing for these squads but whether it translates to reliability is the ultimate question mark, although the Oreca 05’s record last year in the FIA World Endurance Championship was rather stout.  Combined times for the session are linked here.

FLIP THE SPEEDS AROUND

Photo courtesy of IMSA
Photo courtesy of IMSA

The Balance of Performance shift between the December and January tests at Daytona saw the Cadillac DPi-V.Rs restricted by way of a 30mm gurney flap added, and their top speeds reduced from the upper ranges of 190mph down a bit.

The Mazda RT24-P, which had been down in December, topped out fastest for this test at 197.1 mph in session six with Jonathan Bomarito clocking that lap in the No. 55 car. The PR1/Mathiasen Motorsports Gibson-powered Ligier JS P217 was next at 194.3 in the hands of Jose Gutierrez; the best Cadillac was only at 191.5 with Ricky Taylor.

Interestingly, the fastest Lamborghini Huracán GT3s – which were penalized for a technical violation in last year’s Rolex 24 – continued as the outright speed pacesetters in this test (GRT’s Ezequiel Perez Companc led the way at 179 mph), with several of the eight entered clocking top speeds faster than some of the Oreca FLM09 PC cars. The Ford GTs led the way in GT Le Mans (176.6 mph), with a mix of good top-end speed on the straights and, scarily, even better cornering speed through some of Daytona’s fast corners. A full breakdown of the top speeds as of session seven is linked here.

QUICK LEARNERS

So much for it taking a lot of time to adapt to a new car and/or a new track. Hanley and Buemi set the fastest times in their respective Nos. 81 and 13 Oreca 07s in their first times at Daytona. Rene Rast, a two-time GT winner at Daytona, did the lion’s share of running in his first Daytona prototype test with VISIT FLORIDA Racing and was that car’s quickest driver. RC Enerson was quicker for PR1/Mathiasen in his maiden sports car voyage than that car’s lead pro, Tom Kimber-Smith, in his first sports car drive, and coupled with Gutierrez, Bobby Oergel has two sub-20-year-old sneaky speedsters in his lineup. Pato O’Ward, like Enerson another Mazda Road to Indy veteran, impressed in his maiden test with Performance Tech in the PC class.

Alexander Sims – who bares an almost freaky resemblance to Christopher Mintz-Plasse’s “McLovin” in Superbad – was fastest of BMW Team RLL’s four drivers in its No. 19 BMW M6 GTLM, the John Baldessari-designed “Art Car,” 11th among all GTLM drivers. In GTD, Land Motorsport’s Jules Gounon impressed with both his speed and sense of humor. The son of ex-F1 and sports car racer Jean-Marc is an intriguing prospect. Jeroen Mul, Change Racing’s new full-season driver, looks to offer his Lamborghini car expertise and help bring that team forward. He was the fifth fastest Lamborghini driver this test, and considering there’s eight of the Huracan GT3s on display that was a solid effort.

The veterans are always going to be the stars, but it’s the young guns and/or Daytona rookies who are always going to be keen to impress in this opportunity.

GT TIMES ARE OVERALL, PRETTY CLOSE TO CALL

Ford and Porsche led the GT classes, but it's not set in stone for race week. Photo courtesy of IMSA
Ford and Porsche led the GT classes, but it’s not set in stone for race week. Photo courtesy of IMSA

The cat-and-mouse game in the GT ranks occurred once more in both the GT Le Mans and GT Daytona classes, with teams and manufacturers careful to share too much on track before any possible pre-Rolex 24 BoP tweaks.

In GTLM, the 11 cars from five manufacturers were covered by just 0.657 of a second from first to last (Ryan Briscoe, Ford GT, 1:44.380 to Richard Lietz, Porsche 911 RSR, 1:45.037).

In GTD, 27 cars from nine manufacturers were spread by a little more – 2.165 seconds – but first to 16th were covered by less, only 0.936 of a second among just five manufacturers, Porsche, Mercedes-AMG, Audi, Lamborghini and Ferrari. Those featuring from 17th on back were from Acura, Lexus, Aston Martin and BMW, none looking lost but perhaps more coy in their test programs. The GTD-leading entry was the No. 59 Manthey Racing Porsche 911 GT3 R with Sven Mueller clocking the fastest time of the test at 1:46.810.

With GTLM cars capable of more speed, as evidenced by the last pole time set in dry qualifying in 2015, a mid-1:43 lap should be a realistic target for the 2017 pole at the low end, with the possibility a low-1:43 or high-1:42 time could be achieved. In GTD, a low-to-mid 1:46 should do the trick. Those 2015 pole times were:

  • Prototype: Ozz Negri, Ligier JS P2 Honda, 1:39.194
  • Prototype Challenge: Johnny Mowlem, Oreca FLM09, 1:42.318
  • GT Le Mans: Oliver Gavin, Corvette C7.R, 1:43.488
  • GT Daytona: James Davison, Aston Martin V12 Vantage GT3, 1:47.272

GET YOUR CAR-TO-CAR SHOTS IN

The Roar isn’t just a chance to test, but it’s also a chance to build your promotional material for the year. Witness the bevy of car-to-car shots that took place over the weekend, and nicely accumulated in two tweets by Peter Leung (@BaronVonClutch).

Forgetting the photographers here would be bad, because they’re the stars that made this imagery. Jamey Price put together the raging bulls in partnership with Lamborghini, while Ford’s Wes Duenkel put the quartet of GTs together. GM calls on Richard Prince for its car-to-car shots. Brian Cleary and Bob Chapman (Porsche shot below), two other all-around pros, are also veterans of the car-to-car shots for multiple teams and manufacturers.

LIVERY WATCH

Most, but not all, of the 55 cars that tested at the Roar Before the Rolex 24 were in their full regalia ahead of the Rolex 24 itself.

Those that weren’t, or were just in base carbon, white or black:

  • Nos. 2 and 22 Tequila Patron ESM Nissan Onroak DPis
  • No. 13 Rebellion Racing Oreca 07 Gibson
  • No. 81 DragonSpeed Oreca 07 Gibson
  • Nos. 8 and 88 Starworks Motorsport Oreca FLM09 (leftover 2016 liveries; 2017 liveries TBD)

There may be a handful of changes to other cars beyond those six mentioned above, but those are ones that figure to change for the Rolex 24 itself.

Mazda Motorsports has broken its run of having two Soul Red cars. Its two prototypes are Soul Red (No. 55) and Machine Gray (No. 70), which provides a much clearer delineation of which Mazda is which.

GOOD ON YOU, JAKE

Eidson at Road America, 2016. Photo courtesy of IMSA
Eidson at Road America, 2016. Photo courtesy of IMSA

Jake Eidson captured the inaugural IMSA Hurley Haywood GT3 Cup Scholarship, which was expanded from a program IMSA, Porsche and Yokohama started in 2014. Previous IMSA Scholarship recipients were Victor Gomez IV (2016), Elliott Skeer (2015) and Michael Lewis (2014), all of whom remain active in North American sports car racing. The open-wheel veteran, Eidson has spent several years in the Mazda Road to Indy and made a strong debut at Road America last year with Kelly-Moss Motorsports. He’ll run with that team in the IMSA Porsche GT3 Cup Challenge USA by Yokohama for a full season.

“It’s a huge honor and difficult to put together the right words,” Eidson said. “Scholarships are not something you receive often, so to have this help and race in Porsche GT3 Cup is a huge honor.”

Haywood added, “Driving a Porsche Cup car is not an easy thing to do, coming from a different discipline. It shows Jake has that innate ability to know what a car’s limit is, and go to it. It’s a testament to his talent he has that he was able to adapt so quickly.”

AUDIO RECAPS

IMSA Radio was on site for the weekend. Daily recaps from Friday, Saturday and Sunday sessions, hosted by IMSA Radio pit reporter Shea Adam, who also moderated an IMSA-hosted Women in Racing panel featuring Christina Nielsen, Katherine Legge and Ganassi crewmember Jessica Mace, are linked here.

QUOTES OF NOTE

Selected tidbits from various teams and drivers after the Roar Before the Rolex 24:

Eric Curran, No. 31 Whelen Engineering Racing Cadillac DPi-V.R: “The guys on the Action Express Racing team are working hard to learn as quick as we can because everyone has new cars and new equipment. We’re not where we want to be yet, but we’re showing pretty good pace as we focus on the reliability and speed to be competitive and on top of the podium at the end of January.”

Troy Flis, Team Owner, No. 90 VISIT FLORIDA Racing Riley Mk. 30 Gibson: “Some of the issues we saw at the December test were vastly improved and we were glad to see the progress there. There is a lot of positives that came out of the Roar. With this being such a brand new car, we just didn’t have enough time to run through our whole test plan.”

Ryan Dalziel, No. 2 Tequila Patron ESM Nissan Onroak DPi: “The test was good. We learned a lot about the car. Our speed is pretty good right now. We got through a couple of gremlins that we know we need to address and strengthen for the race. All in all, especially on the No. 2 car side, we are pretty happy.”

Marco Ujhasi, Director, Porsche GT Factory Motorsports: “The test miles that we covered over the last three days in preparation for the race were very important. We managed to tick off all the points we’d scheduled for ourselves and now we have a much better understanding of the car on this racetrack. In addition, we experienced changeable and very diverse track conditions. It was dry and wet, warm and cold – precisely what you need in race preparations to be primed for all eventualities. We feel very well prepared for the race and the premiere of our new 911 RSR. In this respect, these three days in Florida were very successful.”

Mark Egger, Lexus Motorsports Manager: “When you look at this first practice session, it’s the first official practice of 2017 before the Rolex 24 and the Lexus RC F GT3 has done very well. In general, we’re learning our race craft and race pace and the team is getting to know the vehicle.”

Art St. Cyr, President, Honda Performance Development: “It’s sure good to be back at the race track again for the start of the 2017 season. The last few days have been intense, but very productive for our new Acura NSX GT3 program. It’s always dangerous to read too much into the lap times at this point in the pre-season, but we believe we have enough understanding to show very competitively at the season-opening Rolex 24, here at Daytona in three weeks.”

Townsend Bell, No. 23 Alex Job Racing Audi R8 LMS: “I’m really proud of the AJR team and the brand new car. Audi did a great job, worked their tails off over the holidays for us, as did the whole AJR crew. We’re proud to be here. Things ran really smoothly [this weekend]. We really enjoyed it. I think we got a lot of really good information. Track temperature is probably the biggest thing here. Typically, when you come back for the race, it’s always warmer here. We got a little bit of heat here on Friday. But, it was really cold last night and this morning. I think we got a pretty good spectrum of information for something that came together late. I couldn’t be happy for the way everyone showed up ready to go.”

Cooper MacNeil, No. 50 Riley Motorsports-WeatherTech Racing Mercedes-AMG GT3: “We had 75 and sunny weather on Friday, rain on Saturday, and cold weather on Sunday so we logged miles in all condition. The Mercedes-AMG was great to drive all three days. We had a long to-do list and we were able to accomplish everything on it over the three days. We’ll be ready for the 24 in three weeks.”

Hulkenberg: Singapore DNF ‘tough to take’ after strong start

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Nico Hulkenberg has admitted his retirement from last weekend’s Singapore Grand Prix was “tough to take” after being in contention to end his long-running Formula 1 podium drought.

Hulkenberg entered the Singapore weekend ready to break the record for making the most F1 starts without recording a top-three finish, having tied Adrian Sutil’s tally of 128 races at Monza.

Hulkenberg qualified an excellent fifth for Renault and dodged the start-line chaos to rise to third, and even ran second for one lap before switching tires.

Hulkenberg settled into fourth place when the switch to dry tires was complete, only for an oil leak on his car to force him to make an unscheduled pit stop and ultimately retire from the race.

“Sunday was tough to take and left me feeling disappointed. We lost a good result, and it was a case of not having a good enough reliability; that’s the way this sport goes sometimes,” Hulkenberg said.

“We lost our fourth position which is a pity especially after all the hard work from the whole team. It would have been a nice bunch of points but that’s racing and it happens!

“The car is looking fast and we have to build on the positives and take it forward now to Malaysia.”

IndyCar points by circuit type: 2017

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After separate reviews of the street and oval portions of the 2017 Verizon IndyCar Series season – led by Josef Newgarden and Helio Castroneves, respectively – the GoPro Grand Prix of Sonoma season finale was of course, the final road course race of the year as well.

And a third different driver topped the charts in those six permanent road course races this year, in the form of Scott Dixon.

Dixon had one win (Road America) and three runners-up finishes in the six races, with other finishes of fourth (Sonoma) and ninth (Mid-Ohio) which brought him 261 points in these races. That was two points clear of Newgarden, who won at Barber and Mid-Ohio and finished second at both Road America and Sonoma, while losing points at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course and Watkins Glen.

The top six drivers in permanent road course points – Dixon, Newgarden, Simon Pagenaud, Will Power, Castroneves and Graham Rahal – were also the top six drivers in the overall points, albeit not in that order.

For the year, it was interesting to note how being consistent across all three phases of circuit netted the best results.

The two biggest outliers were Power – who was only 14th in street course points but second in oval and fourth in road course points – who ended fifth in points overall and Kanaan, who overcame 16th (street course) and 18th (road course) points positions with third place in oval points, trailing only Castroneves and Power.

That oval haul brought Kanaan up to 10th in points in a year where several others – notably James Hinchcliffe, Max Chilton and Ed Jones – all occasionally staked their claim to the final spot in the top-10.

Otherwise, consistency across all circuits was key to securing your overall points position for the year.

The breakdown of points per driver by circuit type is below.

P # Driver Street Road Oval Total
1 2 Josef Newgarden 185 259 198 642
2 1 Simon Pagenaud 147 256 226 629
3 9 Scott Dixon 159 261 201 621
4 3 Helio Castroneves 126 220 252 598
5 12 Will Power 86 244 232 562
6 15 Graham Rahal 162 191 169 522
7 98 Alexander Rossi 126 171 197 494
8 26 Takuma Sato 115 112 214 441
9 28 Ryan Hunter-Reay 105 178 138 421
10 10 Tony Kanaan 79 97 227 403
11 8 Max Chilton 91 141 164 396
12 27 Marco Andretti 103 119 166 388
13 5 James Hinchcliffe 155 99 122 376
14 19 Ed Jones 88 99 167 354
15 21 JR Hildebrand 78 90 179 347
16 14 Carlos Munoz 85 109 134 328
17 83 Charlie Kimball 72 135 120 327
18 4 Conor Daly 68 120 117 305
19 7 Mikhail Aleshin 77 68 92 237
20 20 Spencer Pigot 75 114 29 218
21 18 Sebastien Bourdais 93 89 32 214
22 20 Ed Carpenter 169 169
23 88 Gabby Chaves 98 98
24 22 Juan Pablo Montoya 20 73 93
25 18 Esteban Gutierrez 43 23 25 91
26 7 Sebastian Saavedra 19 61 80
27 16 Oriol Servia 21 40 61
28 7 Jack Harvey 40 17 57
29 29 Fernando Alonso 47 47
30 63 Pippa Mann 32 32
31 13 Zachary Claman DeMelo 26 26
32 77 Jay Howard 24 24
33 24 Sage Karam 23 23
34 40 Zach Veach 11 12 23
35 18 James Davison 21 21
36 18 Tristan Vautier 15 15
37 44 Buddy Lazier 14 14
38 7 Robert Wickens 0 0

Ed Jones adds name to IndyCar’s elite as top rookie in 2017

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Sure, you can say Ed Jones didn’t have a full-season counterpart for IndyCar’s Sunoco Rookie of the Year honors in 2017 and so he was always going to win the award.

But in a year when you don’t have competition and the other first-year drivers did only selected races, you have to compare yourself to the rest of the field at large and make an impression – and Jones clearly did so for Dale Coyne Racing.

Per Trackside Online, Jones joins this list of drivers in the series’ full-time lineup who won top rookie honors in their year of eligibility: Alexander Rossi, Carlos Munoz, Simon Pagenaud, James Hinchcliffe, Ryan Hunter-Reay, Marco Andretti, Will Power, Sebastien Bourdais, Scott Dixon, and Tony Kanaan.

FORT WORTH, TX – JUNE 09: Ed Jones, driver of the #19 Boy Scouts of America Honda, sits in his car during practice for the Verizon IndyCar Series Rainguard Water Sealers 600 at Texas Motor Speedway on June 9, 2017 in Fort Worth, Texas. (Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images)

Heading into last year’s offseason, Jones was not the favorite to take over the No. 19 Boy Scouts of America Honda; fellow Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires veteran RC Enerson was on the heels of three impressive debut races at the tail end of 2016.

However Jones was always going to need a place to land with the $1 million Mazda Motorsports advancement scholarship for at least three races. Between that and with additional budget gathered, Jones found his way into Dale Coyne’s second seat alongside Sebastien Bourdais and together the pairing clicked.

Coyne had his eye on him throughout 2016, and watched him win the Indy Lights title at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca – albeit under somewhat controversial circumstances when Carlin teammate Felix Serralles pulled aside to allow Jones through.

“It was Indy Lights. We went to his last race at Laguna Seca when he won the championship,” Coyne said. “We kept an eye on him. We keep an eye on all Indy Lights guys as well. It’s close, we can see them, watch them race, see how aggressive they are.

“He was always smooth in the car. I didn’t know how good he was going to be, because he was smooth. He doesn’t look like Paul Tracy in a car, but he drives better than Paul Tracy, at least in the beginning, at least Paul’s first year. He was a pleasant — it was the biggest surprise we’ve ever had.”

Jones, the 22-year-old Dubai-based Brit who makes his U.S. residence in Miami, was an instant hit on results if not on outright pace. But with finishes of sixth, 10th and 11th among his first five starts and other results lost due to circumstances outside his control, he immediately made a positive impact in the paddock.

Where Jones grew up fastest in a year where he matured so much from a more quiet and reserved driver in Indy Lights – much of that thanks to the family atmosphere at Coyne and its ace PR rep, Karina Redmond – was in May. Bourdais went from points leader and potential Indianapolis 500 contender to hospital-bound after his devastating accident in qualifying.

INDIANAPOLIS, IN – MAY 28: Max Chilton of England, driver of the #8 Gallagher Honda, Helio Castroneves of Brazil, driver of the #3 Shell Fuel Rewards Team Penske Chevrolet, and Ed Jones of the United Arab Emirates, driver of the #19 Boy Scouts of America Honda, lead a pack of cars during the 101st Indianapolis 500 at Indianapolis Motorspeedway on May 28, 2017 in Indianapolis, Indiana. (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

Jones, meanwhile, was suddenly thrust into the unexpected role of team leader, not knowing week-to-week who his teammate might be depending on the issue. Similar to Alexander Rossi last year, Jones carried a quiet swagger during the month of May in Indianapolis, and was aggrieved for getting knocked out of the Fast Nine shootout.

What he did on race day was equally as impressive as Rossi’s 2016 win in the ‘500 if not more so, considering the disparity in equipment and the fact Jones’ car was damaged in the nose from debris contacting it earlier in the race.

That third place finish (and the double points that went with it) was enough to earn many votes for this year’s Indianapolis 500 top rookie honors (including from this writer) although it wasn’t enough to supplant Fernando Alonso for the award, somewhat controversially. Coyne couldn’t resist trolling during Jones’ season-long top rookie acceptance press conference at Sonoma.

“Obviously Indy, third place there. Did you get Rookie of the Year at Indy or no? Didn’t get that, okay,” Coyne deadpanned.

Alas, Jones pressed on anyway with a consistent appetite for learning, thanks to Coyne’s tutelage, Michael Cannon’s sharp mind on the engineering stand and a crew that embraced him.

“It’s hard to say. There’s a lot of advice that Dale’s given me,” Jones said. “But, you know, he’s always been very supportive of learning everything step by step, learning from Seb. Every time I get to every weekend, even every session, I remember early on it was try to learn as much as you can, take it step by step, there’s no need to overdo it early on.

“I seen myself as well as one of the guys, rookies, younger guys that would come in and they try to be right at the front the beginning. In a series that’s so competitive like this, it doesn’t really happen that often. It’s extreme difficult to do it. Sometimes doing that, you can actually take steps backwards because you kind of lose where you’re at. It’s always better to sort of take it step by step, yeah, get there that way.”

After a ninth place at Detroit race one, Jones’ results suffered the rest of the way through a myriad of mishaps – be it tough setups, bad caution timing, an occasional spin or pit stop issues. A seventh at Road America was the lone bright spot, and a potential top-10 championship finish went begging. Losing Bourdais hurt primarily from a setup standpoint.

“I wasn’t always sure if it was just me or if it was a lot with the car. Yeah, that was the main thing. Seb is really good with setting up the car. Having his feedback to work off from was really helpful,” he said.

“If I ever wasn’t sure about something, I could use him to back something up. Not having him there, yeah, made it harder. Sometimes I was guessing a bit more. So, yeah, that was the toughest part.”

Jones said his driving and development got better as the year went on as, paradoxically, the results got worse.

“It’s always difficult not having another full-time rookie to compare to. Then again, I’ve looked at the rookies over the last few years. I’ve seen it’s extremely tough. I feel pretty happy with how it’s gone in comparison to other guys recently,” he said.

“I wanted to finish top-10 in the points. Halfway through the season, we were on track to doing that. We had a good opportunity to do it. The last few races, things have maybe not gone to plan.

“But I feel like as a driver, I got stronger. Early on in the season, I had some really great results. I was driving well, but also a lot of things fell my way. I was pretty lucky in that sense. Now I think we’ve gone better, me as a driver, also binding with the team. We got stronger, but things just haven’t gone our way. It’s been frustrating.”

None of the issues were egregious and as Coyne related later, Jones was one of the cleanest drivers he’d ever had in a year where the crash damage bills added up fast.

FORT WORTH, TX – JUNE 09: Ed Jones, driver of the #19 Boy Scouts of America Honda, and Tristan Vautier, driver of the #18 Dale Coyne Racing Honda, practice for the Verizon IndyCar Series Rainguard Water Sealers 600 at Texas Motor Speedway on June 9, 2017 in Fort Worth, Texas. (Photo by Sarah Crabill/Getty Images)

With a rotating driver in the second car, be it James Davison, Esteban Gutierrez or Tristan Vautier before Bourdais’ welcome and surprise return at Gateway, Jones was the unexpected but needed rock in the driver lineup.

“I think it’s been a whole progression the whole year. We’ve run a lot of rookies over the years. We run rookies in tests that have never made it to a race, we ran rookies that made it to races,” Coyne said.

“He’s just a puppy. But he’s done a good job, very, very good. I don’t think he scratched the car. He actually did hit the wall at Pocono. The smallest amount of damage I’ve ever seen anybody do hitting a wall at Pocono. Done a very good job all year long, every track.”

Jones isn’t back yet for 2018, but Coyne said “We’re very, very close. I would love to have Ed back next year,” and wants to have a deal struck in the next few weeks.

Looking at what he did as a rookie was quite impressive. The five top-10s matched Conor Daly’s number last year as the lone full-season driver and while Daly was 18th in points in his first full season, Jones ended 14th.

That 14th place in the standings is a Coyne driver’s best finish in the standings since the late Justin Wilson’s incredible run to sixth in 2013, and actually a spot ahead of where Wilson was the following year in 2014, in 15th.

Jones’ qualifying average of 14.3 was 3.5 spots higher than Daly’s last year and Jones out-qualified his teammates nine times this year in 17 races, including Bourdais on three of eight attempts.

What he did for the team this year overall in a tough season will be remembered more than the results itself which again, were impressive given thee circumstances.

“It’s been very tough. But the whole team together, everyone within the team works very well together from the beginning of the year. A big shame to lose Seb after quite a few races. Everyone got on well with it. I remember after the accident, actually Dale got everyone together. We pushed forward,” he said.

“I think there’s been a lot of times that on Dale’s team, there’s things that have happened, gone up and down. As we’ve seen, they’ve always come back stronger.”

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McLaren ‘very close’ to agreeing new F1 deal with Alonso

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McLaren is “very close” to agreeing a new Formula 1 contract with Fernando Alonso beyond the end of the 2017 season, according to team racing director Eric Boullier.

McLaren announced last week in Singapore it would be splitting with struggling engine supplier Honda at the end of the season, linking up with Renault from 2018.

The decision was made in a bid to lift the team to the front of the field, having struggled for much of the past three years while working with Honda.

Alonso has made no secret of his frustration throughout the three-year stint, prompting the Spaniard to consider his future with McLaren upon the expiration of his contract at the end of the year.

With the driver market closing up, Alonso looks poised to remain with McLaren for 2018, but said in Singapore he is considering options in many series.

Speaking to the official F1 website, Boullier expressed his confidence in Alonso staying for 2018, saying a deal was “very close”.

“Fernando wants to stay. You can see it in his body language and the way he speaks,” Boullier added.

“There are marketing details that have to be sorted out, and that Zak [Brown, McLaren executive director] is working on.”

Despite suggestions of an ultimatum regarding its Honda partnership being issued to McLaren by Alonso, Boullier stressed that the team made the decision to switch to Renault by its own accord, with the drivers then fitting in afterwards for its 2018 plans.

“McLaren’s DNA is to be competitive. The team has always been in the top three and we belong there again,” Boullier said.

“Today we know that we have a decent chassis, which would allow us to be in the top three again with an equal level engine.

“So for us as a business it is important to be competitive, no matter what role Fernando plays. We had to make a decision for us.

“But if you want to be competitive you not only need an engine, you also need a driver. That is when Fernando comes into the picture.

“We did what we did for McLaren first, but the package includes also the driver.”