Photo courtesy of IMSA

Reliability, unpredictability set to headline the 2017 Rolex 24

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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – The North American endurance race season kicks off Saturday with the 55th Rolex 24 at Daytona and more questions exist than normal going into the first race of both the 2017 IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship and Tequila Patron North American Endurance Cup seasons.

Namely, reliability questions exist for the series’ marquee Prototype class, which features 12 new cars split between seven Daytona Prototype international (DPi) and five LMP2 cars, all making their race debuts.

And then in the GT ranks, there’s the mix between experienced cars, teams and lineups versus exciting debuting new cars.

With the chance of rain coming on Sunday and a wide gap of experience levels, the possibilities for this race are endless, although some teams have shown their hand throughout the two days of practice and qualifying.

Notes from the week by class are below:

PROTOTYPE (Car-by-car preview)

The Cadillac DPi-V.R has led all pre-race sessions and has the pole position as well. This is not uncommon; Michael Shank Racing has done this before with a Ligier JS P2 Honda in recent years.

Cadillac’s trio of entries from Action Express Racing and Wayne Taylor Racing – who have entered their cars by their sponsor names of Mustang Sampling, Whelen Engineering and Konica Minolta respectively – come in with a wealth of testing mileage over the last five months and solid all-around lineups, with few question marks.

Their pace increase this week compared to the Roar Before the Rolex 24 has raised eyebrows and question marks in the paddock, but IMSA has sought to downplay any sandbagging allegations from other teams by referring to its detailed new data logging system and noting that if such gains were that obvious, they’d seek to enforce a penalty.

From a story line standpoint, the No. 31 Cadillac is due a breakout victory on the heels of its championship a year ago, to further enhance Dane Cameron’s candidacy for being one of the best sports car drivers on the planet (this is obvious to many of us who follow the series full-time, but perhaps not to a wider audience). The No. 5 Cadillac has the pole with the ever-present pair of Christian Fittipaldi and Joao Barbosa joined by Audi ace Filipe Albuquerque.

But it’s the No. 10 Cadillac featuring the Taylor brothers, Max Angelelli in his last start and Jeff Gordon as the headlining guest star of this year’s Rolex 24 that is the undoubted sentimental favorite. Near-perfect runs the last few years have seen this car come up short, and a win this year would be validation of their close-but-no-cigar entries in recent years.

Mazda’s battled throughout the week and has seen its outright top-end speed edge at the Roar disappear. The Tequila Patron ESM Nissan Onroak DPis have flown well under the radar, and mainly seek a finish first.

The going’s been a bit tougher for the LMP2-spec cars. DragonSpeed faced the biggest hurdle with Loic Duval’s crash on Thursday forcing the Elton Julian-led team into an overnight rebuild that ended at 3:30 a.m. Friday. Rebellion’s Roar pace edge has also slipped slightly but Neel Jani did well to qualify third.

The last two PC class winners have found the step up to P tough as expected. JDC-Miller had early week issues that it hoped to have resolved by Thursday night practice. Shifting issues have hampered PR1/Mathiasen Motorsports’ Ligier JS P217 Gibson.

Lastly it’s been a tough week for the VISIT FLORIDA Racing team as it gets its handle on its new Riley Mk. 30 Gibson.

The expectation here is now that Cadillac has firmly emerged as favorite to start the DPi/LMP2 era. Whether it holds or not comes down to reliability.

GT LE MANS (Car-by-car preview)

Some six months ago at Le Mans, the GTLM class – there, the GTE Pro class – was a rather straightforward Ford vs. Ferrari affair. This 24-hour race may well shape up to be similar.

The quartet of Ford GTs from Ford Chip Ganassi Racing have gone through the week largely unscathed and have a notable edge, particularly through braking and early turn in at Turn 1. With both strength in numbers and a year’s worth of experience, the stage is set for the next chapter of Ford GT history to be written at Daytona.

“I have a great team. They really know how to do this race,” said polesitter Joey Hand, who shares the No. 66 Ford. “One year since last year, we feel a lot better, last year was the first year for the cars this race. Now we have time on it. We know the car will go the distance, and can focus on performance to make the car quicker.”

The potential spoiler this weekend as it was at Le Mans comes from the No. 62 Risi Competizione Ferrari 488 GTE, the sole single-car entry class. The team only just got its car a week before the race last year and 12 months on now with a well-rounded, experienced car, figures to challenge for the win as well.

“We brought the trio we had at Petit Le Mans,” said Risi’s Toni Vilander. “There’s quite a big difference this year with having run the car for 12 months. We feel quite well prepared.”

Oddly, Corvette Racing enters more “under-the-radar” as it prepares to go for its third straight win. With a pace disadvantage, Corvette’s hopes may only come good if the weather goes bad.

“There’s a lot to be said for our experience and continuity we have within the team, crew guys,” said Tommy Milner, who watched co-driver Oliver Gavin score the incredible photo-finish win in class one year ago. “I think for us we’re hoping for colder temperatures. That’s when our car felt the best.”

Porsche was, perhaps to its benefit, disappointed with fifth and eighth on the grid as it prepares for the launch of its new mid-rear-engined 911 RSR. The class longshots are the pair of BMW Team RLL BMW M6 GTLMs, which have struggled all week at this circuit and rarely threatened even the top-five.

GT DAYTONA (Car-by-car preview)

In theory, GTD was meant to be the most wide-open class of the four with 27 cars entered. But Ferrari’s front row sweep has left a number of manufacturers, drivers and teams either befuddled or bemused that in this closely controlled period of BoP that one car could have seven tenths over any other.

Because the track has changed so much from the Roar, it’s affected a number of manufacturers in this class. Both Lexus and Mercedes-AMG – two front-engined cars – feel their cars will work better if the temperatures get colder, same as Corvette in GTLM.

Audi and Lamborghini, which share similar chassis but different bodywork and design, have seen their teams make changes to account for the changing track conditions. Alex Job Racing and Paul Miller Racing drivers noted their tweaks to help their chances.

Acura’s drivers are focused on the debut of the NSX GT3, with both cars hoping to make it to the morning and at least one on the lead lap. The single BMW and Aston Martin apiece will look to spoil the party.

And then there’s Porsche, with five 911 GT3 Rs, that were oh-so-close to winning last year but with realistically four of five cars as pure, solid contenders. Fewer things are as mortal locks as Porsche being in contention for a GT win at a 24-hour race and while this may not be the sexiest story line, it’s one you should expect to happen once more.

PROTOTYPE CHALLENGE (Car-by-car preview)

In simplest terms, the smallest and least rated of the four classes has five spec cars entered with one guaranteed to win, and take home the Rolex watch that goes with it.

What will be a test purely of survival will eventually see either of Brent O’Neill, Peter Baron or Brian Alder’s teams rewarded with an elusive first win at this race.

However, there is something to be said for the venerable Oreca FLM09’s reliability heading into its eighth season of active competition, and if the Prototype class entries start falling like flies, watch for a PC car to sneak into the top-five overall, or potentially onto the overall podium.

Pirelli review says Raikkonen tire not faulty at Silverstone

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BUDAPEST, Hungary (AP) Formula One tiremaker Pirelli has concluded that Kimi Raikkonen’s tire damage late in the British Grand Prix was likely caused by external contact.

Raikkonen was set for second place in the July 16 race but his tire problem allowed Valtteri Bottas to complete a Mercedes one-two with Lewis Hamilton. The Finnish driver even looked set to lose his podium spot to his own teammate Sebastian Vettel, but in a bizarre twist he ended up third after Vettel’s own tire shredded.

The sight of two Ferraris capitulating within moments of each other led Pirelli to conduct extensive post-race tests on both cars. Raikkonen’s problem, Pirelli said in a statement Wednesday, did not come from the tire itself.

“The possible initial cause of this damage is consistent with contact against an external body, leading to a partial separation of the belt from the carcass in the two affected areas,” Pirelli said. “On no occasion was there any sign of fatigue, detachment or laceration -or even the beginning of such problems – that affected the structure of the tire. In conclusion, Pirelli can confirm that no issues have emerged connected with the tire itself.”

Last week, Pirelli said that Vettel’s shredded tire at Silverstone was caused by a slow puncture.

Vettel appeared to be heading for third place at Silverstone until his front left tire suddenly blew apart two laps from the finish. The four-time F1 champion managed to steer his Ferrari back to the pits for a tire change, and secured seventh place to cling onto his championship lead. Raikkonen’s pit stop to change his tire came just before Vettel’s.

Hamilton won to cut Vettel’s championship lead to one point. Raikkonen, who has three podium finishes this season, is fifth overall.

The championship continues at the Hungarian GP this weekend before a month-long summer break.

Report: GP Association of Long Beach ‘most qualified’ firm to run race

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Not for the first time, the future of the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach was in the news earlier this year, and the question of whether Formula 1 could re-enter running the race it did from 1976 to 1983, or whether North American open-wheel racing, in INDYCAR, would keep it up.

The city of Long Beach decided to conduct a study using accounting firm KPMG, and paid the firm $150,000 to evaluate whether existing race operators the Grand Prix Association of Long Beach, led by Jim Michaelian, or Chris Pook’s World Automobile Championship, would be best to run the race. Pook founded the event in the 1970s but has in recent years, harbored the return of F1 and suggested it would be a more viable economic prospect.

Per the Long Beach Press-Telegram, the study has now concluded following proposals and interviews from both camps. In a memo obtained by the Press-Telegram, the report indicated the existing GPALB “as the most qualified firm to promote and operate the Long Beach Grand Prix race.”

Michaelian told the Press-Telegram this was an “first but important step” in the process for the race to build a new contract with a city; the existing contract runs through 2018.

Hulman & Co. CEO Mark Miles, in a statement released to the Sports Business Journal, appreciated the recommendation: that statement is below.

This appears to be a key step towards INDYCAR, the Grand Prix Association of Long Beach and the city of Long Beach all working towards an agreement that will keep INDYCAR racing at its most successful, longest running, and marquee street course event on the calendar.

The 2017 Team USA Scholarship candidates revealed

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The Verizon IndyCar Series’ trip to the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course is usually the time of year when we first hear of the candidates for the next year’s Team USA Scholarship, as Jeremy Shaw’s program identifies the next round of talented American drivers who could go on to greater success in racing.

Shaw, known as perhaps the most ardent and best scout of North American driving talent since the program’s inception in 1990, and the program have revealed the 10 candidates who will participate in interviews and further evaluation this weekend before the finalists are named at a later date.

The full release is linked here, while the 10 drivers selected are below.

This year’s Team USA Scholarship candidates are (with age, DOB, hometown and current racing affiliation):

• Sabré Cook, 23, Grand Junction, Colo., GPfour Championship Road Racing
• Konrad Czaczyk, 20, Jupiter, Fla., F1600 Formula Tour Championship (Canada)
• Elliot Finlayson, 21, Yorkville, Ill., GPfour Championship Road Racing
• Aaron Jeansonne, 18, Sulphur, La., Lucas Oil School of Racing
• Kyle Kirkwood, 18, Jupiter, Fla., F4 U.S. Championship powered by Honda
• Jonathan Kotyk, 23, Atlantic Beach, Fla., F1600 Championship Series
• Jacob Loomis, 17, Corinth, Texas, F4 US Championship/Cooper Tires USF2000 Championship Powered by Mazda
• David Osborne, 21, Cincinnati, Ohio, F1600 Championship Series
• Simon Sikes, 16, Martinez, Ga., Skip Barber Racing Series
• Carter Williams, 18, Clovis, Calif., Formula Car Challenge Presented by Goodyear

Rahal, RLL on a roll heading home to Mid-Ohio

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Graham Rahal’s potential last best chance to close a boatload of points in the 2017 Verizon IndyCar Series championship chase comes this weekend at the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course, and it couldn’t come at a better time on the calendar.

He sits tied with Will Power for fifth in the points, 64 behind championship leader Scott Dixon (423-359) with five races remaining. Closing that gap to within 40 or less this weekend will provide him a realistic shot at securing his first title.

A nightmare start to the year saw Rahal finish no better than 10th in the first four races, and left him 17th in points with 59 total, 100 back of then-leader Simon Pagenaud.

In the last eight however, he’s finished between first and ninth in all but one of them. His lone finish outside the top 10 came at the double points Indianapolis 500, with a late-race flat tire resigning him to 12th place there.

That score of 300 points over the last eight races is second in the series, only two behind Helio Castroneves with 302, and with both drivers ruing an ill-timed caution flag last race at Toronto that cost both likely chances at another victory this season.

On the whole though, the single-car No. 15 Steak ‘n Shake Honda for Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing has been a regular consistent threat at the front of the field, same as it has in 2015 and 2016 even despite being up against a trio of four-car entries from Team Penske, Chip Ganassi Racing and Andretti Autosport.

Rahal’s qualifying lap on used Firestone red alternate tires at Toronto netted second on the grid and he hailed it as one of the best laps he’s ever completed in his career.

Graham’s performance and the recent run of form has Bobby Rahal pleased as the team heads into its spiritual home race in Lexington, Ohio this weekend, where driver and team scored a popular victory in 2015.

“If you look at the start of the year at Long Beach we qualified sixth, but we were running in the train – fourth or fifth right to the end of the race and had the flat tire,” Bobby Rahal told NBC Sports. “We just couldn’t seem to get a good break.

“Clearly when we got to the Indy Grand Prix we had problems in qualifying, but the race pace was there. Then a flat tire hit in the 500. We led the race from where we gridded (14th) and we could have threatened at the end. It’s been a little bit snake bit prior to this.

“But clearly the pace was there. Texas finishing fourth there was a good finish. Fifth at Iowa was good. Unfortunately in Toronto, and we had the great qualifying performance I thought, I don’t think anyone was happy post-race! I think even Roger Penske told Graham we got screwed, and even though he won, his own car (Castroneves) lost!

“Still the fact we did it on used reds versus new reds, I thought was pretty impressive. In Toronto we were pretty good – maybe not as good as we were in Detroit – but still pretty good and kept getting better and better.

“I think he’s driving very well. I’m pleased about that. What’s so hard about that qualifying there, is you only have one lap to do on tires on Toronto for example. It’s easy to overdrive a car in that situation, but he hasn’t. I think he’s done a good job in that respect.”

Graham Rahal

For Graham Rahal, who loves coming home to Mid-Ohio, this is an important weekend but one that he always takes the opportunity to savor.

“It’s always great to go back to Mid-Ohio,” he said. “I have a lot of fond memories, and have had a lot of great days there. Obviously winning there in 2015 really highlighted my career thus far. I’m excited to get back and hopefully see a great crowd once again. I know we will have a lot of support and I’m very appreciative of that.  Hopefully we can have a great run in the Steak ‘n Shake Honda because we definitely need it at this point in the championship.”

Rahal’s road course performance hasn’t been stellar this year in qualifying with 21st and last at Barber, 20th on the grid at the INDYCAR Grand Prix in Indianapolis, but then a big jump to sixth at Road America, making the Firestone Fast Six. Finishes of 13th, sixth and eighth have represented good comeback drives in the race.

“My hopes and expectations are high,” said Rahal. “We have struggled with our road course setup this year but at the same time I think we are capable of overcoming that. Our guys have put a lot of effort, a lot of time and mental energy into figuring out what we need going forward.”

One of the areas that will help him is his pit position this week. Having qualified second at Toronto last race, Rahal has nearly the perfect pit spot this weekend, as pit lane and track position at Mid-Ohio are crucial.

“Our pit position in Mid-Ohio, based on qualifying second in Toronto, is going to be great. It’s flat so that is going to help us a lot.  Obviously you want to be pitted with the good guys.  You want to be right down there where the fast guys and championship contenders are and we’re right there with them,” he said.

Rahal is in championship contention despite that rocky start to the year and will be looking for some home cooking to fire up the final five races of the season.