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.

Ricky Brabec wins 2017 Sonora Rally (PHOTOS, VIDEO)

Ricky Brabec wins Sonora Rally. Photo: Sonora Rally
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Honda rider Ricky Brabec, who won a stage at this year’s Dakar Rally, has captured the victory in last week’s Sonora Rally, held March 21-24 in Sonora, Mexico.

He led all four of the special stages in a start-to-finish romp for victory.

Despite Joan Barreda and Steve Hengeveld’s injuries that ruled them out of the rally, Brabec still had to focus on the job at hand.

“You are really racing against yourself out here, against the terrain,” he said in a release.  “I’m much more familiar now with open up a course than I was back in January at Dakar when I had to do it for the first time.”

Fellow Honda riders Mark Samuels and Andrew Short completed the podium. Samuels won the Sonora Rally’s Dakar Challenge, which presents a free opportunity for a rider to enter the 2018 Dakar Rally.

“The hard work of getting to Dakar is still ahead of me, but I will do everything in my power to make America proud,” Samuels said.

Polaris ATR rider Dave Sykes won the UTV class, with Eric Pucelik and Mike Shirley winning the Cars class.

On background, the Sonora Rally is the only event of its kind in North America. The rally raid format requires street legal vehicles to transit along untimed “liaison” sections and timed “special stages” over multiple days, with the lowest combined time winning the event. Now in its third year, the Sonora Rally realizes the vision of founders Scott Whitney and Darren Skilton to bring a world class rally raid event to these shores (2016 recap).

Brabec’s winning ride is captured in the below video, via Race-Dezert.

Meanwhile, because photos do this event more justice than words do, those are below (All Photos: Sonora Rally)

Webber: Alonso may not see out the season with McLaren

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Mark Webber never had the easiest time in Formula 1, particularly his latter years as the number two driver at Red Bull Racing to Sebastian Vettel.

That being said, he was never on the verge of leaving it directly until he announced his plans to move to Porsche’s LMP1 Team, where he raced for three years from 2014 to 2016 before retiring at the end of last season.

But the Australian pondered whether Fernando Alonso might not be able to see out the season with McLaren Honda, if the team and manufacturer’s woes continue.

“Alonso may not stay with the team,” Webber told Belgian outlet Sporza. “Maybe Stoffel (Vandoorne) soon will have a new teammate.”

“I could see it happen that Alonso does not drive out the season. He is very frustrated. Fernando doesn’t start for a sixth or seventh place; he wants to fight for the podium.”

Webber added that for Vandoorne’s sake, starting in a team with lower expectations might not be the worst thing for him. It may allow the Belgian rookie to learn without extra pressure, since the onus is focused on the team.

For Alonso though, time is of the essence for what’s left of his career in F1. This is his last season under contract with McLaren Honda and he made no secret of his frustration for how well he drove at Melbourne, yet the car wasn’t up for it.

“Well the race was good, one of my best races driving like that,” Alonso told NBCSN post-race. “The car’s uncompetitive and to be close for a point was a nice surprise. It was good fuel saving as well. I was surprised to keep it in the points. A suspension (issue) stopped us from getting this point.

“I feel very well prepared, driving at the best of my career, and I’m fighting for one point. That’s disappointing and frustrating. But so long as I’m driving at my best, it’s a problem for the team… not me.”

Rosberg, Button soak up their first weekends out of F1 (PHOTOS)

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Since 2008, Lewis Hamilton and Sebastian Vettel have won seven World Championships. The two drivers that won titles in that period not named Lewis Hamilton and Sebastian Vettel – Nico Rosberg (2016) and Jenson Button (2009) – were both enjoying their first weekends not on a Formula 1 grid as full-time drivers for the first time in more than a decade this weekend as the 2017 season commenced at Melbourne’s Albert Park.

Rosberg made a visit to preseason testing in Barcelona a few weeks ago for his first appearance as spectator since winning the World Championship. But he watched from home this weekend with his family and posted a few thoughts during both qualifying and the race:

We’re now quite familiar with Rosberg’s home TV set and coffee table. This is the first time Rosberg has been out of an F1 race since 2005, the year he won the first GP2 championship.

Button meanwhile paid a visit to California for the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series weekend at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana… once he got off his couch. He checked in with seven-time champion Jimmie Johnson at Fontana.

Do you guys know if there's anything good to watch on tele this weekend? @storm_and_rogue_pomskies

A post shared by Jenson Button (@jensonbutton_22) on

Given McLaren Honda’s struggles, Button is probably smart to have got out when he did. He’d been on the grid since 2000, save for a couple races out in 2005 when BAR-Honda was barred from competing after being disqualified from the San Marino Grand Prix.

Meanwhile for Rosberg, he watched as Mercedes was unable to win the season opener for the first time since 2013.

DJR Team Penske wins three of four Supercars races at Melbourne

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DJR Team Penske has won its first Virgin Australia Supercars Championship races over the weekend during the Australian Grand Prix, with Scott McLaughlin and Fabian Coulthard taking the first three wins in the four-race, non-championship race weekend.

While Penske’s teams have long succeeded in North America and have had some international success, notably a Formula 1 win at the 1976 Austrian Grand Prix with John Watson, success has thus far eluded them since arriving in Supercars two years ago as majority shareholders of Dick Johnson Racing.

McLaughlin had the honor of beating Coulthard to the first win in race one of the weekend, before Coulthard doubled up with wins in races two and three. The first two races were one-two finishes, though, and McLaughlin said he’d received a text from Roger Penske in the wake of the victory.

“I got a text from Roger straight away and they’re all pretty happy,” McLaughlin told Supercars.com.

“They’re thanking me but I should be thanking them for giving me the opportunity.”

The first race was marred by this incident between Nick Percat and Lee Holdsworth, Percat having lost his brakes entering Turn 1 and crashing into Holdsworth, who was an innocent bystander.

But once the race resumed, McLaughlin held off Coulthard for the victory.

Coulthard led from start-to-finish in race two after his second straight pole position. He did the same in race three, albeit not in a Penske 1-2 as Jamie Whincup came second for Red Bull Holden Racing Team Commodore. McLaughlin was third.

A left-front puncture stopped Coulthard making it three in a row in the fourth race, and with steering damage, McLaughlin was resigned to 17th. Chaz Mostert took the win his Supercheap Ford, ending his own winless spell that dated to August of 2015.

Also of note from the weekend, ex-IndyCar driver Simona de Silvestro in her Team Harvey Norman Nissan Altima finished 13th in race one, her best finish yet in her first full season in the series.

The Supercars series is back in action at Symmons Plains Raceway on April 7-9.  Coulthard sits second in the series championship, 51 points back of Whincup’s teammate, Shane van Gisbergen.