Photo courtesy of IMSA

New Acura NSX GT3s star in Rolex 24 debut

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The collaborative efforts of Michael Shank Racing, RealTime Racing, HART and Honda Performance Development all came good straight out of the box for the race debut of the new Acura NSX GT3.

In this weekend’s 55th Rolex 24 at Daytona, the new Acuras led laps, finished fifth and 11th in the 27-car GT Daytona field (and perhaps was unlucky to not finish higher), and scored the most points in the first leg of the four-race Tequila Patron North American Endurance Cup.

Not bad for your first time out.

Both cars qualified in the top-10 in class on debut, with Andy Lally in the No. 93 Acura and Jeff Segal in the No. 86 Acura lining up in seventh and ninth.

By Lap 28, Lally was already into the lead of the class – the first lead for the new NSX in race competition – and something that would be matched by several of his teammates later on in the race.

Between Lally, Segal, Mark Wilkins, Ozz Negri, Graham Rahal and Ryan Hunter-Reay (only Tom Dyer and Katherine Legge didn’t lead, although they were each in the top-three at various points in their stints), the two Acuras combined to lead 171 of the 634 laps in class (No. 86, 97 laps, No. 93, 74 laps), or 27 percent.

The cars really excelled overnight in the miserable rainy conditions, where the track conditions were brutal and where it was difficult to get the tires up to temperature. Ambient and track temperatures were in the mid-40 to low-50 degree range.

Lally made a key switch onto Continental Tire slicks as the track started, but hadn’t fully, began drying. He and Segal were the anchors of the respective cars and had them both in top-five position late in the going. However with just over an hour remaining, Lally lost the hood on his car, and despite trying to press on without it wound up going off at Turn 5 with 30 minutes remaining. That dropped he, Legge, Wilkins and Rahal down to 11th.

But in fifth, Segal, Negri, Dyer and Hunter-Reay delivered a top-five finish on the debut of the new car. A Porsche 911 GT3 R, Audi R8 LMS, Mercedes-AMG GT3 finished on the podium and Acura was the fourth manufacturer of nine entered in GTD represented in the top-five.

“To be slightly disappointed with a fifth-place finish in the debut of the Acura NSX GT3 in a 24-hour endurance race, says a lot about the dedication of HPD, Acura and Michael Shank Racing,” said Art St. Cyr, President, Honda Performance Development. “Our goal was just to finish the race and, if not for contact damage from earlier in the race, we were on track for two top-six finishes. This bodes very well for our prospects in this program, beginning at Sebring in March.”

“We were all a little bit apprehensive about our first race. This NSX has never raced before and there were so many new challenges that might lay ahead of us. Finishing the race was a huge target, so to finish fifth and having led a lot of the race in the rain was really incredible,” Segal added. “I have to admit that I’m a little disappointed, because once we had led so much, I wanted to win! But it is really great work by this group. It is truly incredible. A lot of hard work by everyone at Acura, HPD and Michael Shank Racing. Some endless months and weeks were spent working on this car and it paid off.”

Shank, a racing lifer, frequently ran two Daytona Prototypes years ago but hadn’t run a two-car program in several years. To jump into a new class with a new, two-car factory program and perform as well as he did shows the caliber of the team he runs.

“The key to this result was constantly digging and never stopping – with a plan,” Shank said. “Having a plan helped us a lot here. We talked a lot about the things that could happen in this race and we were ready for them. I’m so pleased to execute on those plans, and be able to have this kind of debut for the NSX. On top of that, all of our guys on the pit lane were just awesome. Every time we went into the pit box, we came out in better position than we were when we went in.

“I’m thankful, but I’m disappointed because both of our cars should have been in the top-five with no problem. But all-in-all it was just a great debut and I couldn’t be happier for the team, Acura, and HPD. This feels very good and we’re looking forward to a great year ahead.”

Hartley happy with ‘big progression’ on first day with Toro Rosso

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With 69 laps completed (28 in free practice one and 41 in free practice two) and respectable lap times in both sessions, Brendon Hartley quickly acclimated to a modern day Formula 1 chassis in his first run with Scuderia Toro Rosso in Friday practice for the United States Grand Prix.

The Porsche factory driver has been drafted into the team following a convoluted series of musical chairs that sees Daniil Kvyat back after a two-race absence, Carlos Sainz Jr. now at Renault and Pierre Gasly racing at the Super Formula season finale in Suzuka.

Over the time in the car today, Hartley experienced changeable conditions in FP1 before a more normal FP2, and discovered the new F1 cockpit after a day learning in the garage yesterday.

“A steep learning curve today! It all went pretty smoothly and I kept the car on track without making too many mistakes, so I’m quite happy,” the New Zealander reflected at day’s end.

“I didn’t really know what to expect from today because I just had so much to learn! I think I made quite a big progression throughout the day.

“The biggest difference from what I’m used to is the high-speed grip, it’s incredible here in Formula 1…it was quite an eye-opener! Another challenge are the tires, which are also quite different to what I’m used to. On the other hand, the long-run looks quite positive and I did a good job managing the tires there – the biggest thing I need to work on now is the new tire pace, and I’ll get another crack at it tomorrow morning before qualifying.

“All in all, I’d say it’s all coming together. We’ll now work hard and go through plenty of data tonight and hopefully I’ll make another step forward tomorrow.”

His best lap was 1.1 seconds up on Friday driver Sean Gelael, the Indonesian Formula 2 driver, in FP1 (1:39.267 to 1:40.406, good enough for 14th) and 1.1 seconds off the returning Kvyat in FP2 (1:37.987 to 1:36.761, good enough for 17th). Interestingly, the Gelael/Hartley combination in FP1 marked the second time in three races that Toro Rosso had a pair of drivers in its cars without a single Grand Prix start between them – Gasly’s debut at Malaysia was the other, when he and Gelael were in in FP1.

Coming into Friday’s running, Hartley said he was more ready for this opportunity now than he had been as a teenager. He admitted he’d called Red Bull’s Helmut Marko in the wake of Porsche’s LMP1 withdrawal news earlier this year to say he was game for any chance that might come.

“I’m a lot stronger than I was back then, basically. I wasn’t ready at 18 years old. I like to think I’m ready now,” he said.

“I haven’t driven a single-seater since 2012, but I like to think that Porsche LMP1 has hopefully prepared me well.”

As for the rest of his weekend, it’s been made more complicated by Hartley being assessed a 25-spot grid penalty, even though Hartley had done nothing to accrue the penalties.

The roundabout sequence of driver changes at Toro Rosso saw Gasly replace Kvyat, Kvyat replace Sainz, and now Hartley replace Gasly, as is outlined by NBCSN pit reporter Will Buxton below.