No. 85 JDC-Miller Motorsports Oreca 07 Gibson and No. 31 Whelen Engineering Racing Cadillac DPi-V.R. Photo courtesy of IMSA

First taste of tantalizing new prototype battle set for Rolex 24

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The sports car world’s first race glimpse of the new Daytona Prototype international and new-for-2017 LMP2-spec chassis will come at this week’s Rolex 24 at Daytona, where months of testing for both type of cars will help determine who draws first blood out of the gate in the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship season opener.

A 12-car Prototype class grid features seven of the DPis, three Cadillac DPi-V.Rs, two Mazda RT24-Ps and two Nissan Onroak DPis, while the LMP2-spec cars include three Oreca 07s and a single Ligier JS P217 and Riley Mk. 30 chassis apiece. The LMP2-spec cars all have the spec Gibson engine while DPis allow manufacturers to run both their engine and designed bodywork over one of the four base chassis.

The last time a sea change this big came to the Rolex 24 occurred in 2003, with the debut of the first iteration Daytona Prototypes. The tube-framed chassis defined the future for the GRAND-AM Rolex Series, with a field of six at the first race growing to 30 just three years later in 2006.

Of course that first run in 2003 was always going to be littered with mechanical maladies and by the time the race was over, TRG had captured a shock but well-executed overall win with a GT class Porsche 911 GT3.

DPi PRIMER

The Cadillac and the Mazda edge ahead of the Nissan Onroak in terms of test miles prior to this year’s Rolex 24, and haven’t sacrificed performance in the process.

Ricky and Jordan Taylor. Photo courtesy of IMSA
Ricky and Jordan Taylor. Photo courtesy of IMSA

For Ricky and Jordan Taylor, who’ve shared the Konica Minolta-backed Corvette DP for Wayne Taylor Racing the last few years, the chance to develop a manufacturer-based DPi from scratch has provided them a new dose of experience to their burgeoning careers.

“Even compared to the P2 car I drove in Le Mans (an open-top Morgan Judd) in 2014, this is a totally different planet,” Ricky Taylor told NBC Sports. “It’s such a huge evolution from P2 cars in the past. It’ll likely take a season to get up to speed and how it responds to changes, how it drives, lot of learning curves. How stiff the car it is, how responsive. The power is nice obviously. It’s been a pleasure to drive.

“(Dallara’s) main department is the aero department. So with all the work they do being aero driven in P1, F3, GP2, F1, IndyCar… everything is so aero driven. With their body, it can stand out what they can do.”

These two share the No. 10 Cadillac for Wayne Taylor Racing with Max Angelelli, who was instrumental in working with Dallara throughout the design and test process, and a certain fourth driver who may generate some buzz this Rolex 24 in Jeff Gordon.

At Action Express Racing, meanwhile, defending IMSA Prototype champions Dane Cameron and Eric Curran have their first new car to develop in the No. 31 Whelen Engineering/Team Fox Cadillac. Christian Fittipaldi and Joao Barbosa, in the No. 5 Mustang Sampling Cadillac, have driven a bevy of prototypes throughout their career.

Yet it might be their extra drivers – Filipe Albuquerque (No. 5) and Mike Conway (No. 31) – who add the most help to the full-season duos at the Rolex. Both have raced full-time in the FIA World Endurance Championship and have raced both LMP1 and LMP2-spec cars, with Albuquerque (Audi) and Conway (Toyota) having had the chance to make their mark understanding how those cars work.

Conway, who along with Sunoco Challenge winner Seb Morris make their Rolex 24 debuts as extras in the No. 31 car, described how this Cadillac drives compared to the LMP1 Toyota he races full-time and the LMP2-spec Oreca 03 and Oreca 05s he’s raced in the past. As you’d expect, the DPi seems to fit well between the two.

“I’ve not done loads of laps, but enough to learn the track and car,” Conway told NBC Sports. “It’s an LMP2 car with more power really, so I knew what to expect. It’s more just learning the tires.”

At Mazda, the RT24-Ps have the base Riley Multimatic chassis with the Mazda-designed aero styling as the bodywork. Speed gaps from the December test were erased at the Roar and the Mazda actually topped the speed traps there, with Jonathan Bomarito in at over 197 mph.

Tom Long and his Long Road Racing team/family have been integral parts of Mazda’s development work over the years, mainly in the MX-5 platform including the new Global MX-5 Cup car which premiered last year. Although the platform is new, Long hailed Mazda’s aspects of continuity for its new car.

No. 70 Mazda RT24-P. Photo courtesy of IMSA
No. 70 Mazda RT24-P. Photo courtesy of IMSA

“It helps that we have the same engine package as before, so we do have that on our side,” said Long, who will share the No. 70 Castrol Edge Machine Gray Mazda with Joel Miller and James Hinchcliffe. “Having that continuity between the driver lineup, crew chiefs and engineers helps so much. We learn together; we’re already ahead in that standpoint. That’s the Mazda mantra to never stop challenging. We’ll push forward.”

The Mazdas fought through suspension issues at the Roar but will look to press on for the rest of the month. The No. 70 is Mazda’s Chassis 1 while the No. 55 Soul Red Mazda, driven by Bomarito, Tristan Nunez and Spencer Pigot, is the Chassis 3. The lone base Riley Mk. 30, an LMP2-spec car, is entered by VISIT FLORIDA Racing, with Renger van der Zande, Marc Goossens and Rene Rast sharing the No. 90 Gibson-powered entry.

The new Nissan premiered publicly in December. Despite the car’s outward appearance looking similar, save for the GT-R inspired nose assembly, more is different under the bodywork to clearly differentiate it from the Ligier JS P217 base chassis.

No. 2 Tequila Patron ESM Nissan Onroak DPi. Photo courtesy of IMSA
No. 2 Tequila Patron ESM Nissan Onroak DPi. Photo courtesy of IMSA

“The car carryover is actually nothing from last year,” Ryan Dalziel, co-driver of the No. 2 Tequila Patron ESM Nissan with Scott Sharp and Pipo Derani, explained. “It’s new regulations and the ’16 Ligier was obviously based on the ’14 rules. So we were one of the few cars in P2 not built with a narrow tub.

“Everything is new, from the suspension and the like. Really no carryover parts. Between the WEC-spec and our spec there’s a massive difference in powerplants. The differential, rear end, driveshafts; basically the whole rear end is mechanically different. Add in the different routing on the sidepods, which is a lot of the reason why the sidepods are different. It’s not so much styling cues as intercoolers, but radiators for the turbo motor. That said, it still feels fundamentally like the previous Ligier and it means they’re using what they’ve learned.”

That No. 2 car is alongside the team’s sister car, the No. 22 entry, driven by Ed Brown, Johannes van Overbeek, Bruno Senna and Brendon Hartley.

LMP2 PRIMER

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 base Ligier is the progression from the Ligier JS P2, which in its third year in 2016 had a banner campaign winning at Daytona and Sebring with ESM, and Petit Le Mans with Michael Shank Racing. The Ligier was unlucky to have not won at Le Mans in three tries.

Ethan Bregman, North American Market Manager, Onroak, explained the design and test process for one of the four new LMP2 chassis for 2017, the new Ligier.

“I believe for us, our aero work is an advantage,” he told NBC Sports at the Performance Racing Industry Trade Show in December. “Our worry was (DPi) manufacturer styling could slow the cars down. We’ve done 2000-plus runs in wind tunnel, plus CFD, so there’s been huge amount of time optimizing this car.

“Compared to the DPi model, the P2 cars will remain the baseline with the spec-Gibson (engine) and the DPis BoP’d to match. The DPis are great structure for manufacturer involvement. They can put their branding behind it. But at same time, a privateer can get a P2 and have it competitive, because they’re there.”

The lone privateer Ligier entry comes in the capable hands of PR1/Mathiasen Motorsports, which steps up from PC into Prototype this year. Bobby Oergel’s team knows how to win endurance races, having captured Daytona, Sebring and Petit Le Mans in recent years, and has a sneaky good lineup assembled with Tom Kimber-Smith, Jose Gutierrez, Michael Guasch and sports car debutante RC Enerson.

That saves Oreca for last, although their pace at the Roar should have put them much higher. Three teams are running the Oreca 07, in full-season entrants JDC/Miller Motorsports (Stephen Simpson, Misha Goikhberg, Chris Miller, Mathias Beche) and partial season teams Rebellion Racing (Neel Jani, Nick Heidfeld, Sebastien Buemi, Stephane Sarrazin) and DragonSpeed (Ben Hanley, Nicolas Lapierre, Loic Duval, Henrik Hedman), the latter two teams having led all but one of the Roar sessions.

As the logical evolution from the previous generation Oreca 05, the new Oreca is quick out of the box and well-honed in development. Jani delivered good first impressions.

“To be honest, I’m not reading too much into it yet. We’ve just been focusing on getting to know the car – it’s completely new,” he said, via IMSA, at the Roar. “Working with the team’s engineers, we’ve made a lot of changes on the car. There’s still some room to improve, but that’s normal. But I don’t think everyone else is really showing what they can do. The main thing for us was working on reliability, and so far it’s great – knock on wood.”

The technical variations in all six car combinations are part of the allure and draw for the race, and the intrigue in wondering which car and team will nail the combination of pace, performance, patience and reliability makes this year’s prototype battle a fascinating one to watch.

Robert Hight extends Funny Car victory streak to 13 seasons

Photo: Gary Nastase and Auto Imagery
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MORRISON, Colo. (AP) Robert Hight beat Tommy Johnson Jr. on Sunday in the Mopar Mile-High NHRA Nationals at Bandimere Speedway to extend his Funny Car victory streak to 13 seasons.

Hight topped Johnson with a 3.995-second pass at 317.57 mph in a Chevrolet Camaro SS for his 38th career victory.

“We definitely struggled through the first few rounds and we were lucky to get those round wins, but I have a great team who figured things out and helped get me to the winner’s circle,” Hight said. “It’s definitely a long-time coming and we hadn’t had much luck, but today we had some luck and we hope this continues throughout the Western Swing.”

Antron Brown won in Top Fuel, Drew Skillman in Pro Stock, and Eddie Krawiec in Pro Stock Motorcycle.

Brown edged teammate and No. 1 qualifier Leah Pritchett with a 3.792 at 319.82. He has three victories this season to push his career total to 64.

Skillman raced to his second straight victory and the fifth of his career, beating points leader Bo Butner with a 6.916 run at 198.15 in a Camaro.

Krawiec topped Matt Smith with a 7.145 at 188.28. The Harley-Davidson rider has two victories this season and 38 overall.

Sauber confirms Matsushita for Hungary test as well

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Honda junior driver Nobuhiro Matsushita will have a run with Sauber F1 Team on the second day of the Hungarian Grand Prix post-race week test, in the team’s C36 chassis.

Sauber’s engine selection for 2018 is up in the air. While the team announced a switch from year old Ferraris to Hondas, this was done under prior team principal Monisha Kaltenborn and rumors have persisted the deal may be off, or wasn’t fully done in the first place.

That Matsushita is running at this test for his first day in an F1 car – Gustav Malja will run on day one – could indicate the Honda switch isn’t yet a dead topic.

“When I was four years old, I was fascinated by Michael Schumacher, watching him racing in Formula 1. Since then my dream was to become a Formula 1 driver,” he said. “I am very excited about my first Formula 1 test and I am really looking forward to driving the Sauber C36-Ferrari at the Hungaroring – it is a great opportunity for me. I hope it will be a productive day for the team as well as for myself, so that I can learn as much as possible. I would like to thank the Sauber F1 Team for making this happen.”

New team boss Frederic Vasseur, formerly of Renault, gave his take on the test.

“I am pleased that Nobuharu has this great opportunity. He deserves the experience of his first test in a Formula 1 car. Ever since his debut in Formula 2 with ART Grand Prix, I have been following his progress closely, and have watched him advance his performance from year to year. With this Formula 1 test, he comes one step closer to his dream of becoming an F1 driver one day.”

Renault confirms Robert Kubica will test in Hungary

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Renault Sport F1 Team has confirmed Robert Kubica will make his return to a current Formula 1 car in the post-Hungarian Grand Prix test, which will only continue to fuel the hype train for a possible race return.

The Pole has undertaken two tests in recent weeks with older cars but this day in the Renault R.S.17 will provide the team a chance to evaluate him in current machinery to gauge his race level fitness.

It’s a story that has got the F1 world buzzing in recent weeks as Kubica, injured in a rally accident before the 2011 season, has made a comeback to restart his racing career.

Poor Nicholas Latifi, also confirmed for the test that runs the Tuesday and Wednesday after the Hungarian Grand Prix, will be undoubtedly overlooked as a result.

Jolyon Palmer will race in Hungary this weekend at least but whether the Brit continues beyond the summer break that follows afterwards remains a question mark.

Haas F1 driver Romain Grosjean to launch cookbook

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Haas Formula 1 driver Romain Grosjean may be one of the sport’s most promising talents on-track, but he also has a burning passion off it: cooking.

Grosjean may have been spent a good part of this year cooking his brakes, but you’ll now be able to cook bakes instead…

F1’s resident foodie is set to release a cookbook alongside wife Marion Jolles in the coming weeks, as announced on his Facebook page.

Grosjean currently sits 13th in the F1 drivers’ championship with 18 points to his name, helping Haas to match the points total from its debut season after just 10 races in 2017.