Photo courtesy of IMSA

Back home, Patron ESM team readies for Rolex 24 title defense

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A year has passed since Pipo Derani’s epic drive spearheaded the Tequila Patron ESM team’s overall victory with the Ligier JS P2 Honda in the Rolex 24 at Daytona, shared with Scott Sharp, Johannes van Overbeek and Patron Spirits CEO Ed Brown.

The Daytona win followed a crushing near-miss at Sebring in 2014 and then a roller coaster of chassis changes in 2015, when the team’s new HPD ARX-04b suffered from a weight imbalance and was withdrawn after Daytona, before switches to the previous generation HPD ARX-03b and Ligier JS P2 Honda followed for the upcoming rounds.

Interestingly while ESM had the car and the lineup right last year, it wasn’t the first step towards a championship on North American soil.

Instead, the team carried out its second full-time effort in the FIA World Endurance Championship, while continuing to support the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship from team and promotional standpoints at the Tequila Patron North American Endurance Cup races. ESM also won at Sebring to complete a rare “36 hours of Florida” endurance race sweep, the first in nearly 20 years.

Now, for the first time in three years, Sharp’s ESM squad is back in IMSA with two cars, full-season, for this year’s campaign. Ryan Dalziel, who had the quirkiness of racing against ESM in IMSA (drove for VISIT FLORIDA Racing) while racing with ESM in the WEC, leads the full-season lineup with Sharp in the team’s No. 2 car, while the longtime Brown/”JVO” pairing rolls on in the second No. 22 car. Derani (No. 2) and Bruno Senna and Brendon Hartley (No. 22) bolster the Daytona lineups. The cars roll off fifth (No. 22) and sixth (No. 2) today.

“It’s nice. We really wanted to be here last year,” Dalziel told NBC Sports. “Unfortunately we knew (at the start) the DP/P2 battle never really favored the P2 cars. We were a P2 team and it didn’t leave a lot of options to race competitively after ’14.

“When we committed to the WEC, it was a two-year program. We did our two years, and we knew DPi was coming for 2017. But I don’t think anyone has promoted (IMSA) more than Ed Brown and Patron.”

The aforementioned DPi – or Daytona Prototype international – formula debuts at the Rolex 24 alongside the new-for-2017 LMP2-spec chassis.

Photo courtesy of IMSA
Photo courtesy of IMSA

ESM has continued its relationship, forged in the WEC, with Nissan. The Nissan Onroak DPi has the physical appearance and engine you’d see on a Nissan GT-R NISMO GT3, but underneath, is entirely its own piece compared to the base Ligier JS P217 chassis, especially compared to the predecessor, the Ligier JS P2. After the previous Ligier and two HPD chassis, this is ESM’s fourth car at the Rolex 24 in as many years.

“Everything is new, from the suspension and the like. Really no carryover parts,” Dalziel explained. “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.”

The Nissan Onroak prototype only debuted publicly at Sebring in late December with a two-day test and as such, it’s likely to focus more on reliability for this first race than outright performance compared to the Cadillac and Mazda DPis, which got running earlier in the fall.

“Speed-wise we don’t really know what we have,” Dalziel said. “It might be a difficult month for us. Overall though I think the package is good. If we’re reliable, we’re fast.”

An improved team bond is one of the goals for ESM’s North American return, as well. The addition of Erin Gahagan, formerly team manager at EFFORT Racing in Pirelli World Challenge, to the same role at ESM should produce a positive effect, and there’s the comfort level she and Dalziel established from their time together at EFFORT in 2014 and 2015.

“We were racing abroad, but we were focusing on restaffing over here,” Dalziel said. “We had WEC, but we built up the IMSA team for ’17. We hired Erin Gahagan, Tommy Milner’s sister, and my team manager at EFFORT. She’s built a nice group of people around here.

“We’ve done good on staffing, although we’re a bit behind on the car. We’ll see what we get. We’re not fully prepared as we’d like, but we’ll do our best.”

Street race in Vietnam could lead Formula One’s Asia expansion

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TOKYO (AP) — Formula One is expected to add more races in Asia, including a street circuit in the capital of Vietnam, a country with little auto racing history that is on the verge of getting a marquee event.

“We think Hanoi could come on in the next couple of years, and we’re working with the Hanoi government to that end,” Sean Bratches, Formula One’s managing director of commercial operations, told the Associated Press.

There is even speculation it could be on the schedule next season, which Bratches rebuffed.

Vietnam would join countries like Azerbaijan, Russia and Bahrain, which have Grand Prix races, little history in the sport, and authoritarian governments with deep pockets that serve F1 as it tries to expand into new markets.

“This (Hanoi) is a street race where we can go downtown, where we can activate a large fan base,” Bratches said. “And you have extraordinary iconography from a television standpoint.”

A second race in China is also likely and would join Shanghai on the F1 calendar. Bratches said deciding where to stage the GP will “be left to local Chinese partners” – Beijing is a strong candidate.

Bratches runs the commercial side of Formula One, which was acquired last year by U.S.-based Liberty Media from long-time operator Bernie Ecclestone.

Formula One’s long-term goal is to have 24-25 races – up from the present 21 – and arrange them in three geographical segments: Asia, Europe and the Americas. Bratches said the Europe-based races would stay in middle of the calendar, with Asia or the Americas opening or ending the season.

He said their positioning had not been decided, and getting this done will be slowed by current contracts that mandate specific places on the calendar for several races. This means eventually that all the races in Asia would be run together, as would races in Europe and the Americas.

The F1 schedule is now an inefficient jumble, allowing Bratches to take a good-natured poke at how the sport was run under Ecclestone.

“We’ve acquired an undermanaged asset that’s 67-years-old, but effectively a start-up,” Bratches said.

Early-season races in Australia and China this year were conducted either side of a trip to Bahrain in the Middle East. Late in the season Formula One returns to Asia with races in Japan and Singapore.

The Canadian GP this season is run in the middle of the European swing, separated by four months from the other races in the Americas – the United States, Mexico and Brazil. These three are followed by the season-ending race in Abu Dhabi, which means another trip across the globe.

“With the right economics, with the right structure and cadence of events across territories, 24 or 25 is probably where we’d like to be from a longer-term standpoint,” Bratches said.

Big changes are not likely to happen until the 2020 season ends. This is when many current rules and contracts expire as F1’s new owners try to redistribute some income to allow smaller teams to compete.

“There’s more interest than we have capacity in the schedule,” Bratches said, firing off Berlin, Paris or London as potentially attractive venues. “We want to be very selective.”

“Those cites from an economic impact standpoint would find us value, as do others around the world,” Bratches added. “It’s very important for us as we move forward to go to locations that are a credit to the Formula One brand.”

An expanded schedule would have to be approved by the teams, which will be stretched by the travel and the wear-and-tear on their crews. The burden will fall on the smaller teams, which have significantly smaller revenue compared with Ferrari, Mercedes or Red Bull.

Bratches also envisions another race in the U.S., joining the United States Grand Prix held annually in Austin, Texas. A street race in Miami is a strong candidate, as are possible venues like Las Vegas or New York.

“We see the United States and China as countries that could support two races,” he said.

Liberty Media has reported Formula One’s total annual revenue at $1.8 billion, generated by fees paid by promoters, broadcast rights, advertising and sponsorship. Race promotion fees also tend to be higher in Asia, which makes the area attractive – along with a largely untapped fan base.

In a four-year cycle, F1 generates more revenue than FIFA or the International Olympic Committee, which rely almost entirely on one-time showcase events.

Reports suggest Vietnamese promoters may pay between $50-60 million annually as a race fee, with those fees paid by the government. Bratches said 19 of 21 Formula One races are supported by government payments.

“The race promotion fee being derived from the government … is a model that has worked historically,” Bratches said.