No. 69 McLaren and No. 35 Porsche. Photo courtesy of IMSA

IMSA: CTSC kicks off its 2017 season today at Daytona

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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – A new era for the Continental Tire SportsCar Challenge begins this weekend at the BMW Performance Challenge at Daytona International Speedway, on two fronts.

GS sees the introduction of new FIA GT4-spec cars, while the series itself sees its first four-hour race, up from the standard two-hour, 45-minute platform (coverage available via live stream on IMSA.com, with audio from IMSA Radio).

As such, that makes handicapping both the race and the season a roll of the dice.

Dean Martin (GS, Ford Mustang GT4) and Connor Bloum (ST, Porsche Cayman) captured the pole positions for today’s race. Qualifying results are linked here.

So beyond the front row and the early story lines, here some of the notes to watch from here:

A REVAMPED GS FIELD 

While nearly all of the small GS field from a year ago returns, how they do so are in different capacities compared to this time 12 months ago.

Multimatic Motorsports’ previous Ford Shelby GT350R-C is history after just a year and a half, replaced by the seemingly Transformers-like new GT4 variant of the new Mustang, that is even more aerodynamically efficient than its predecessor. It was a rocket at the Roar test, which concerned some of the field, and the pace has carried over this week.

Gone too is Billy Johnson from the lineup, through no fault of his own but rather a circuitous regulations tweak that’s left him sidelined. Johnson’s FIA Driver Rating was increased from Gold to Platinum, the highest level of four and reserved for those largely with factory driver status. But IMSA has implemented a rule where Platinum-rated drivers can no longer compete in the series, and thus it’s Johnson out, and Jade Buford back in alongside the indefatigable Scott Maxwell, the Canadian who’s done so much for Multimatic and Ford over the years.

CJ Wilson Racing again has two cars, but the lineups shift. Till Bechtolsheimer will race alongside Marc Miller in the team’s No. 33 Porsche Cayman GT4 while new recruits Damien Faulkner and Russell Ward will share the No. 35 Techemet Porsche. Wilson, who announced Thursday night his plans to race a Porsche GT3 Cup car this year, explained the dynamic of the changed four-hour race.

“The four-hour will be really challenging. You have a lot of different variables and can shuffle things around. When do we use tires? When do you switch drivers? How different is it with two versus three (drivers)? It’s gonna be really different,” Wilson told NBC Sports.

Karl Thomson’s Compass360 Racing as a name has been fused to the edgier, shorter, C360R. With its singular Ford gone, the team now has two of the new McLaren GT4s, and the pairings of Paul Holton and Matt Plumb (No. 76) and Matthew Keegan and Nico Rondet (No. 77) make for strong lineups.

Several-time 2016 race winner Bodymotion Racing (Porsche), Team TGM (two Porsches of the Cayman GT4 MR variety), Muehlner Motorsports America (Porsche), Automatic Racing (adds two new McLarens to its two Aston Martins) and TRG (Aston Martin) are also back in action, but again with little year-to-year carryover. Bodymotion missed this race last year with Cameron Cassels sidelined per a family commitment, and he and Trent Hindman will be keen to impress this year.

And then there are the extra GS entries, which should figure to pack a punch. The two MIA/Pfaff McLaren/Garaga McLaren entries bring that manufacturer’s total up to six for this race. James Sofronas has assembled two solid lineups in his pair of new Porsche Cayman GT4 MRs, which ran late last year at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca and other club race events. Two more Porsches come from championship-caliber Florida-based teams RS1 and BGB Motorsports, the latter making its series return after a several-year hiatus.

ST’S BATTLE OF CAYMANS VS. EVERYONE ELSE

In the 20-car ST class field, nine of the cars are Porsche Caymans, including defending class champions Spencer Pumpelly and Nick Galante in the No. 17 RS1 Porsche Cayman.

The remainder of the class features the usual fleet of three Mazda MX-5s from Freedom Autosport, three MINI JCWs from Luis Perocarpi’s LAP Motorsports, Bimmerworld’s pair of aging but venerable 3-series BMWs, the CRG-I Do Borrow Nissan Altima, C360R Audi S3 and JDC-Miller Motorsports BMW 228i.

The field is easier to predict here, with RS1, Freedom, Murillo Racing, CRG-I Do Borrow and perhaps the MINIs entering the race-winning equation.

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.