Photo courtesy of IMSA

Reliability, unpredictability set to headline the 2017 Rolex 24

Leave a comment

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.

Schmidt Peterson aiming high with Hinchcliffe, Wickens

Photo: IndyCar
Leave a comment

The new Schmidt Peterson Motorsports duo of James Hinchcliffe and Robert Wickens expressed a high amount of confidence during Wednesday’s confirmation of Hinchcliffe’s return and Wickens’ signing, as the pair looks to return the Sam Schmidt and Ric Peterson co-owned team to prominent status within the Verizon IndyCar Series.

“We’re hoping to give Toronto and Ontario and Canadian sports fans in general something to cheer about over the next season,” Hinchcliffe quipped during a teleconference on Wednesday.

Granted, there are likely to be several challenges to overcome, notably for Wickens, who returns to single-seater competition for the first time since 2011, when he was a champion of the Formula Renault 3.5 series and served as test driver for the now defunct Manor Racing (then known as Marussia Virgin Racing).

Having spent every year since then in DTM, where he won a total of six races and finished as high as fourth in the championship (2016), Wickens knows returning to open wheel competition will be an adjustment. However, he explained that the history of Schmidt Peterson Motorsports, specifically its Indy Lights history, speaks to their ability to help a driver adapt, and he rates the program they’re putting together very highly.

“I think Schmidt Peterson Motorsports have a fantastic driver development program. They showed that in their multiple Indy Lights championships along the way. I think we will have a strong program in place. I have a feeling that the simulator will be my new best friend,” Wickens said when asked about getting reacquainted with an open-wheel car.

Of course, having an experienced teammate like Hinchcliffe to lean on will undoubtedly help the transition, something Wickens readily admitted.

“I’m very fortunate that I have James as my teammate because he’s so experienced, I can learn off him. Because we already have such a good off-track relationship, I feel like you can just take his word, trust him, kind of move forward with it,” he revealed.

They’ve been teammates before, both in karting where they first met in 2001, and then in the now-defunct A1 Grand Prix series in 2007-2008, a series that pitted nations against each other in spec open-wheel cars. Funnily, that A1GP type of vibe returns as Schmidt Peterson Motorsports now has that with its “Team Canada” mantra while all four of Andretti Autosport’s full-season drivers are American.

For Hinchcliffe, Wickens’ background, even if it hasn’t been in the single-seater realm since 2011, was a big selling point in adding him to the team.

“In Robby, we have a proven winner at a very high level. The level of technical expertise that he comes with from his time in DTM is very impressive,” he said of Wickens’ technical background.

Hinchcliffe added that Wickens’ ability to analyze the car and its setup was evidenced in two outings: one at Sebing International Raceway in March, in part of a “ride swap” between the two longtime friends, and a second at Road America, when he subbed on Friday practice for Mikhail Aleshin.

Wickens sampled Hinchcliffe’s No. 5 Arrow Electronics Honda earlier this year. Photo: IndyCar

Hinchcliffe revealed that Wickens’ feedback to the team and his ability to quickly adapt to the chassis took everyone somewhat by surprise.

“We did our ride swap. He had two hours in the car, hardly anything even resembling a test day, and his performance was pretty impressive. No doubt the time in Road America helped because that really gave us a better sense of his technical feedback, integrated with the team a little bit more. Everybody was happy to work with him on that day,” said Hinchcliffe.

Further still, Hinchcliffe is firm in his belief that the 2018 aero kit and its reduction in aerodynamic downforce will fall right into Wickens’ wheelhouse, based on Hinchcliffe’s own take after sampling Wickens’ DTM Mercedes earlier this year.

“In all honesty, I was saying earlier today, the 2018 car is probably better suited for him than the 2017 car because of the experience he’s had the last handful of series,” Hinchcliffe asserted.

“The (aero kit) was such high downforce, it would be a big change coming out of DTM. But with the loss of downforce that we’ve seen, the car is moving around a little bit more, brake zones, things like that, it won’t be as big a transition I think. Just based on the experience that I got in our ride swap, I think he’s going to adapt very quickly, be comfortable very quickly, and as a result be competitive very quickly. So it’s going to be exciting.”

As for expectations heading into next year, team co-owner Schmidt did not mince words and expects the team’s performance to resemble what they did in 2012, 2013, and 2014, when they won a total of four races (with driver Simon Pagenaud) and finished in the top five in the championship each year.

“We had a stint in ’12, ’13, ’14 where we finished fifth in the points (or better. I think we want to get back to that level of competition,” Schmidt added. “We felt like we were missing things in having two cars with equal funding and equal drivers and equal capabilities. We think this gets back there.”

Follow @KyleMLavigne