Bleekemolen, Keating and Bill Riley. Photo courtesy of IMSA

Post-Viper, the new Mercedes-AMG era begins for Bleekemolen, Keating

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The GT Daytona field in the 2016 IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship season saw Scuderia Corsa claim the title with a combination of both pace and consistency, while the team that came closest to knocking the Los Angeles-based Ferrari team from its perch was sports car veterans Riley Motorsports, with the memorable and powerful Dodge Viper GT3-R.

The Viper’s life in IMSA is now at an end and with it, a switch to Mercedes-AMG begins.

Arguably the top pairing of a true pro-am lineup within the framework of the GTD class, Jeroen Bleekemolen and Ben Keating head into their fourth consecutive season as teammates, in what is now the No. 33 Mercedes-AMG GT3, and look to finally secure a first championship. Scuderia Corsa has won the last two titles with two different lineups, while Dane Cameron took the 2014 GTD title in a BMW Z4 GT3 for Turner Motorsport.

Bleekemolen and Keating have won seven races in GTD over the last three years, two each in 2014 and 2015 before scoring three wins last year, including in the Viper’s farewell at Petit Le Mans.

The switch to the Mercedes-AMG was a natural one for Bill Riley’s group. Bleekemolen’s known for his propensity to wheel the heck out of anything he drives, but he has experience in both iterations of Mercedes-AMG’s GT3 challengers, having also spent quite a bit of time internationally in the previous generation Mercedes-Benz SLS AMG GT3.

“They’ve just improved the (new) SLS in all areas, and the SLS was already a really good GT3 car,” Bleekemolen told NBC Sports. “But they’ve just made it better all-around. I’d say the SLS always struggled in hairpins with its long wheelbase, while this car with the shorter wheelbase is a bit better there, has more aero as well, and the whole package is just a little bit better as well.

“It’s not too hard (of a switch) because this car is so nice and easy to drive. I’ve always said of the SLS, this is the easiest car I know and this car is similar in that way. It’s a very easy car to drive. You get a feel for the car pretty quick and that makes it also a good all-around car. In difficult conditions, it’s going to be good, it’s going to be easy. I love this car.”

Keating, whose Viper Exchange dealer is the country’s largest Dodge Viper and exotic cars dealership, admits the farewell to his racing baby is bittersweet, but the time was right to switch to the new car for this season.

Nos. 33 and 50 Riley Motorsports Mercedes-AMG GT3s. Photo courtesy of IMSA
Nos. 33 and 50 Riley Motorsports Mercedes-AMG GT3s. Photo courtesy of IMSA

“The first question everybody wants to ask on the AMG is how different is it? The fact is the wheelbases are pretty similar, it’s a big displacement, big torque, naturally aspirated front engine – it’s not that much different than the Viper, with two exceptions,” Keating told NBC Sports.

“The traction control and ABS systems, the electronics systems, are extremely well-developed on the AMG and the car has more downforce. It was developed a couple years later than the Viper, and the Viper needed an evolution if it was going to stay competitive. This car is at the pointy end of the stick. The AMG is phenomenal from a developmental standpoint. And it’s got just great downforce, which again makes a big difference with the traction and braking.

“And so it kind of goes hand-in-hand: it does everything a little bit better than the Viper did, except for top speed.”

It’s worth noting that as GTD has evolved, so too have the lineups within the class. Owing to the quirks and nuances of the FIA Driver Rating system, a fair number of drivers who you could accurately call full-time professionals are rated Silver owing to their recent results, their age, or the fact their results in past series don’t factor into the classifications to give them a pro (Gold or Platinum) rating.

This leaves the class with a number of theoretical “am” drivers that are far from it – Scott Pruett, for instance, is a Silver-rated driver because he’s 56 years old, rather than the fact he has five career Rolex 24 victories. And there are plenty of others who are rated Silver even though they’re pros, or potential full pros-in-waiting.

Keating, who’s the modern day equivalent of a Rob Dyson or Bob Akin in terms of having a successful business first but also progressing into a stellar race driver on his own, is one of the few remaining accurately rated Silvers within the category, so his ability to keep pace against full-time pros during his stints is what has kept the team and car in contention for race wins over the years. Keating’s also planning to pull double duty in this year’s Rolex 24, racing not only the Mercedes but also a Prototype Challenge car for Peter Baron’s Starworks Motorsport.

“Last year, I went back to the Viper Racing League in NARA and did a club race with my friends that I raced with five, six, seven years ago,” Keating explained. “I did well with that group, but they were competitive. And, I was racing a car that wasn’t as much as car as those other guys, and I lapped the entire field except one. It was unbelievable to me to recognize that I’ve gotten so much better.

“But when you’re here with such a competitive field, it’s hard to tell that necessarily. And you’ve got different types of cars that like different types of tracks. It’s hard to say how much is driver and how much is car, and how much is BoP or whatever. So, it was really nice to have that comparison.

“The fact is I have gotten a lot better. It’s the ability to compare myself with Jeroen, one of the best in the business, it’s having such much better engineering, car setup, team strategy, pit crew over the wall, everything adds up – little bitty amounts adds up to being up front. It’s a whole lot easier to be upfront and stay upfront, than it is to start in the back and get upfront. So, I’ll say I’ve gotten a lot, lot better and I’ll say my team makes me look good.”

Bleekemolen has hailed Keating’s advancement the last few years.

“We will be fine because Ben is doing just a great job,” he said. “He’s been on the pace with the pro’s last year as well. I have big confidence in him that he can be competitive. He’s been fighting guys like Andrew Davis last year and other people like that who are that good. Ben’s raised his game year after year, and he’s really at a good level now where we can fight for wins, even though he’s a true amateur in that respect.”

The No. 33 car has Mario Farnbacher, given a lifeline after The Heart of Racing program ended last year, and Mercedes factory shoe Adam Christodoulou as extra drivers at Daytona.

Riley Motorsports also has added Farnbacher’s Alex Job Racing teammates from WeatherTech Racing to the stable this year in a second car. Cooper MacNeil and Gunnar Jeannette lead the No. 50 Mercedes-AMG GT3 entry, with MacNeil reuniting under the same tent with Bleekemolen after the two won an ALMS GTC title a few years ago – incidentally beating Keating. Mercedes veteran Thomas Jaeger and Australian Supercars wizard Shane van Gisbergen complete that lineup.

Wehrlein nonplussed by Sauber-Honda speculation

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Pascal Wehrlein is not paying any attention to speculation that Sauber’s planned Formula 1 engine deal with Honda for 2018 could be on the rocks, saying his future remains open as he focuses on his current duties with the team.

Mercedes junior Wehrlein was placed at Sauber for 2017, and led the team to its first points finish of the year at the Spanish Grand Prix in May.

Sauber had been given a boost two weeks earlier when it announced a deal to become Honda’s second customer team for 2018, including technical and financial support.

However, the deal was put in doubt following Sauber CEO and team principal Monisha Kaltenborn’s departure, leading to speculation that it had not been finalized.

Kaltenborn’s replacement Frederic Vasseur has made it a priority to resolve the matter, but it has made for a bleak outlook at Hinwil for the future.

With the 2018 driver market beginning to stir, Wehrlein has stressed he is not yet thinking about next season, nor is he paying any attention to the speculation about Sauber’s deal with Honda.

“I have no idea what is happening next year. Of course, I have heard all these rumors as well,” Wehrlein told the official F1 website.

“I cannot influence any of these things, so why worry about them? Whatever rumors there are in the air, it is no distraction for me – that is the bottom line.

“I have a contract for this season so I am only focusing on this year. Decisions are made by others and I am only here to drive, to perform as well as I can.

“Of course I want to see Sauber do well. They have the potential and have already been in good positions in the past and I want them to get back there. How and when? That is on another page.”

Wehrlein expressed his confidence in Vasseur’s leadership, although he expects the team to shift focus to its 2018 plans.

“I do have expectations of Fred and the team. I don’t know how fast Fred can change things or how he can change them, but we now have one race left before the summer shut down,” Wehrlein said.

“In the second half of the season the team will focus on next year, so I don’t think you will see his touch too much this year. So let’s see what we can still do with the tools that we have right now.

“I really respect Fred. I used to work with him in DTM. He had a team when I drove there in 2015. He has so much experience in motorsport and in many other ventures outside racing.

“He is a very successful man. He could help Sauber. He could be very good for the team.”

Keeping Grosjean, Magnussen for 2018 ‘a given’ in Gene Haas’ eyes

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Gene Haas is planning to field an unchanged line-up for his Formula 1 team in 2018, believing it to be “a given” that Romain Grosjean and Kevin Magnussen will continue beyond the end of the season.

NASCAR team co-owner Haas took his eponymous F1 operation onto the grid in 2016, pairing Grosjean with Esteban Gutierrez.

While Grosjean scored a fifth-place finish in Haas F1 Team’s second race and picked up 29 points across the course of the season, Gutierrez failed to record a single top-10 result.

The Mexican was replaced by Magnussen for 2017, with the Dane taking 11 points through the first 10 races of the season.

Despite the fluidity of the driver market for 2018, Haas revealed in an interview with the official F1 website that the team is planning to race with Grosjean and Magnussen together once again next year.

“We will run with the same drivers that we have this year again next year. That is a given,” Haas said.

“And given the other continuity aspects, we should be better racers next season.”

Haas had been tipped to take on a Ferrari junior such as Antonio Giovinazzi or Charles Leclerc for 2018 given its technical ties to the Italian marque.

Grosjean is understood to be a target for Renault should it miss out on re-signing Fernando Alonso, while Magnussen penned a multi-year deal upon arrival at Haas at the start of the season.

Reflecting on Magnussen’s contribution, Haas believes the team has benefitted from his greater race performance that has allowed it to match its debut season points total in just 10 races in 2017.

“Esteban was a good driver. He was as fast as Romain in practice, but I think that Kevin has an edge in terms of race experience,” Haas said.

“He can score points and that was the key for bringing him on board. Kevin can grab points and Romain can too.

“We now have 29 points. Last year around this time we also had 29 points, but did not score for the rest of the season.

“So now if we can score another 29 points by Abu Dhabi, that would be a great position.”

Pirelli: Slow puncture caused Vettel’s British GP tire failure

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Pirelli has determined that a slow puncture was the cause of Sebastian Vettel’s Formula 1 tire failure towards the end of last Sunday’s British Grand Prix.

Vettel suffered a failure on his front-left tire on the penultimate lap of the race at Silverstone while running third, forcing him into a late pit stop that ultimately left him P7 at the checkered flag.

The incident was just minutes after Ferrari teammate Kimi Raikkonen had also hit trouble with his front-left tire, although Pirelli stressed after the race that the incidents were unrelated.

Pirelli announced on Friday that, after conducting extensive analysis of the tire, it could confirm that its initial belief that Vettel had suffered a puncture was indeed correct.

“As appeared clear since Sunday afternoon, a full investigation has now confirmed that the original cause of the failure was a slow puncture,” Pirelli said.

“The consequent driving back to the pits on an underinflated and then flat tire led to the final failure.

“Kimi Raikkonen’s damaged tire shows less evidence of what occurred, so further tests and analysis are still ongoing in Pirelli’s laboratories and indoor testing facilities.

“It will take a few more days to reach a definitive conclusion.”

BMW completes first test with 2018 M8 GTE in Germany

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BMW has completed the maiden track test of its new M8 GTE car that will race in the FIA World Endurance Championship and the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship in 2018.

BMW announced back in September that it would be returning to the 24 Hours of Le Mans through the WEC in 2018, entering the GTE-Pro class.

The German manufacturer has since been developing its new M8 GTE car which will also replace the existing M6 GTLM in the IMSA-run series, where it is raced by Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing.

BMW announced on Thursday that it had completed a three-day test last week at the Lausitzring in Germany, with factory drivers Martin Tomczyk and Maxime Martin both enjoying time behind the wheel.

“To see the BMW M8 GTE on the racetrack makes me very proud. Everyone involved has done a magnificent job in recent months to allow us to reach this milestone in the development of our new flagship for the GT racing scene,” said BMW head of motorsport Jens Marquardt.

“In the first instance, the purpose of a test like this is obviously to get to know the car. In this regard, greater emphasis is placed on the safety aspect than performance. However, the first impression of the BMW M8 GTE out on the track is a very positive one.”

“Firstly, I feel very honored to have been able to drive at the first real test of the BMW M8 GTE on the racetrack. I had great fun with the car,” added Tomczyk.

“The BMW M8 GTE is good to drive from the outset, and it is easy for us drivers to work out the way it handles, which is important. We got a lot of kilometers under our belt, and gathered a lot of data. We also took our first steps with regard to performance, which is by no means a given at a first test.

“We will obviously work more intensively on that at the coming tests, and will build on the strong basis we established here at the Lausitzring.”

The BMW M8 GTE is set to enjoy another on-track test next month, with Antonio Felix da Costa due for some lap time.