No. 28 Alegra Motorsports Porsche 911 GT3 R. Photo courtesy of IMSA

Young guns deliver Rolex 24 wins for Alegra, Performance Tech

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There’s something to be said for team owners that give young racing drivers an opportunity, and two of the youngest lineups in the field at this year’s 55th Rolex 24 at Daytona delivered on their promise for wins in the two designated pro-am classes in the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship.

Miami-based Alegra Motorsports used one factory Porsche driver, in the “he should be older but is still only 26 years old” Michael Christensen, along with three IMSA Porsche GT3 Cup class champions from 2016 in Daniel Morad (26), Jesse Lazare (19) and Michael de Quesada (17) and de Quesada’s father Carlos to win the 27-car GT Daytona class with its No. 28 Porsche 911 GT3 R.

Meanwhile courtesy of a flawless drive with four drivers all 27 years of age or younger (James French, 24, Pato O’Ward, 17, Kyle Masson, 19, and Nick Boulle, 27) Performance Tech Motorsports scored a breakthrough win for the final Prototype Challenge class win at the Rolex 24, to give team principal Brent O’Neill a well-deserved victory for his Deerfield Beach, Fla.-based team.

It was a cool thing to note because of the lack of experience from most of these nine combined drivers. The elder de Quesada and Christensen were the only two drivers for Alegra with past Rolex 24 experience, while Performance Tech’s lead driver James French and Nick Boulle were the only two for Performance Tech with past starts.

Meanwhile the Porsche Cup champions and the other two drivers at Performance Tech, Masson and O’Ward, would be making their Rolex 24 debuts.

From L to R: Morad, C. de Quesada, M. de Quesada, Lazare, Christensen. Photo courtesy of IMSA
From L to R: Morad, C. de Quesada, M. de Quesada, Lazare, Christensen. Photo courtesy of IMSA

“I’m obviously very excited to be here,” said Carlos de Quesada. “Ten years ago we won the 24 hours, and it was just something that ‑‑ it was just unbelievable for us. We had the right team, the right drivers, the right equipment.  Everything after that is luck.  I told these guys the same thing.

“When I assembled this team, we ran Daniel Morad with Alegra Motorsports up in Canada and he won the Platinum Cup Championship up there along with the North American Cup Championship, and then Michael, my son, went ahead and won the gold class in the USA.  Because we were also running some USA Cup races, Daniel and Jesse Lazare were racing against each other and we were watching Jesse race, and just the quality of driver that he is, we decided to go ahead and invite him to drive with us for the 24 hours.”

The Performance Tech. Photo courtesy of IMSA
The Performance Tech team. Photo courtesy of IMSA

O’Neill, meanwhile, pressed ahead with the team’s effort after an accident during the Roar Before the Rolex 24 test, which cost IMSA Mazda Prototype Lites champion Clark Toppe his planned seat in the race and opened the door for Boulle to rejoin the team. Rather than pack up, the team rebuilt the car with a number of spares and found the setup it needed to dial the car in from there.

What followed in the race was pretty much a tour de force in the five-car PC class. Without a scratch on the car, the quartet led 614 of 638 laps in the No. 38 Oreca FLM09 and won by 22 laps.  It marked Performance Tech’s first race win in the PC class since the American Le Mans Series days, at Baltimore 2013, with now-Mazda factory driver Tristan Nunez and Charlie Shears driving.

“This was really special,” O’Neill said. “I think we led all but about 10-minutes of 24 hours. There were a lot of people after the Roar that didn’t think that our car was going to be winning any races any time soon, but here we are. This was good for the whole team. It was a great morale booster as we head into the rest of the season. We had a lot of guests here this race, friends and family, because it’s near our home base. So, it was pretty cool to be able to pull it off. This was a great team effort. The guys in the pits did awesome and each of our drivers drove their butt off. The team deserved this.”

No. 38 Performance Tech Motorsports Oreca FLM09. Photo courtesy of IMSA
No. 38 Performance Tech Motorsports Oreca FLM09. Photo courtesy of IMSA

French has been with O’Neill the longest of these four drivers and after scoring pole, led the team’s effort behind the wheel. The Sheboygan Falls, Wis. native has matured and developed into the team’s lead driver, and was careful to not get worried in the final stages of the race as the win looked imminent. Despite his Midwest roots, French still admitted he was cold in the open-top prototypes in the bitter overnight hours.

“The rain was just freezing cold.  That’s the best way I can describe it.  It was like 40‑something degrees, 42 degrees, and we were all soaking wet.  It was cold, not a lot of grip.  Basically trying to control the car in the slippery conditions with numb fingers and numb feet, it was pretty tough,” he said.

“I tried to ignore those thoughts, believe me, especially with this being the last season, and to not have a win up to this point, it definitely occurred that, okay, the opportunities are getting more and more slim.  But yeah, it just seemed like everything was going really smoothly.  To be honest, it wasn’t a surprise.”

O’Ward and Masson both won in their series debuts, while Boulle, who co-drove with French to a podium last year at Circuit of The Americas, adds another cool stat to the ledger – his family’s de Boulle Jewelers are the first Rolex Jeweler to win the Rolex 24.

Alegra’s charge came in the final couple hours, with Christensen closing after consistent stints earlier in the race from his four co-drivers. They saw off the efforts from the Montaplast by Land-Motorsport Audi team, which also had a four-driver lineup of four drivers 27 or younger. The young Dane has always been a little under-the-radar in his Porsche factory driver career, but as Morad related from their days racing together in the 2010 GP3 Series, he does have natural finishing hard instincts.

“Going back to 2015, leading up to this season, I hadn’t raced for four years, and prior to that I was racing in Europe actually against Michael in the GP3 series,” said Morad, who won the Porsche GT3 Cup Canada title last year. “It’s funny that we meet again, and this time thankfully in our car, because with a drive like that I wouldn’t want to drive against you.  He just showed his class.  He’s a true legend, and one of the best sports car racers in the world, and he showed that today.

“But it’s a team effort, really.  Carlos gave all of us the opportunity when no one would, no team owner would take the risk on four young drivers and put them together.”

Christensen, illustrating his cool status, just called his final stint “part of the plan.”

“To be honest, it was a long plan, really.  We all sat together and spoke about what we thought of the race itself, what do we need to do to be successful here, and we all were having the same thoughts, don’t touch anyone, be careful, it’s a long race, and everyone ‑‑ most guys out there are pushing hard at certain times of the race, especially a race with weather conditions like that.  It’s really tough just to keep it on track, and yeah, our plan was to stay on the lead lap and have a perfect race car for the end of the race.”

Wehrlein nonplussed by Sauber-Honda speculation

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Pascal Wehrlein is not paying any attention to speculation that Sauber’s planned Formula 1 engine deal with Honda for 2018 could be on the rocks, saying his future remains open as he focuses on his current duties with the team.

Mercedes junior Wehrlein was placed at Sauber for 2017, and led the team to its first points finish of the year at the Spanish Grand Prix in May.

Sauber had been given a boost two weeks earlier when it announced a deal to become Honda’s second customer team for 2018, including technical and financial support.

However, the deal was put in doubt following Sauber CEO and team principal Monisha Kaltenborn’s departure, leading to speculation that it had not been finalized.

Kaltenborn’s replacement Frederic Vasseur has made it a priority to resolve the matter, but it has made for a bleak outlook at Hinwil for the future.

With the 2018 driver market beginning to stir, Wehrlein has stressed he is not yet thinking about next season, nor is he paying any attention to the speculation about Sauber’s deal with Honda.

“I have no idea what is happening next year. Of course, I have heard all these rumors as well,” Wehrlein told the official F1 website.

“I cannot influence any of these things, so why worry about them? Whatever rumors there are in the air, it is no distraction for me – that is the bottom line.

“I have a contract for this season so I am only focusing on this year. Decisions are made by others and I am only here to drive, to perform as well as I can.

“Of course I want to see Sauber do well. They have the potential and have already been in good positions in the past and I want them to get back there. How and when? That is on another page.”

Wehrlein expressed his confidence in Vasseur’s leadership, although he expects the team to shift focus to its 2018 plans.

“I do have expectations of Fred and the team. I don’t know how fast Fred can change things or how he can change them, but we now have one race left before the summer shut down,” Wehrlein said.

“In the second half of the season the team will focus on next year, so I don’t think you will see his touch too much this year. So let’s see what we can still do with the tools that we have right now.

“I really respect Fred. I used to work with him in DTM. He had a team when I drove there in 2015. He has so much experience in motorsport and in many other ventures outside racing.

“He is a very successful man. He could help Sauber. He could be very good for the team.”

Keeping Grosjean, Magnussen for 2018 ‘a given’ in Gene Haas’ eyes

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Gene Haas is planning to field an unchanged line-up for his Formula 1 team in 2018, believing it to be “a given” that Romain Grosjean and Kevin Magnussen will continue beyond the end of the season.

NASCAR team co-owner Haas took his eponymous F1 operation onto the grid in 2016, pairing Grosjean with Esteban Gutierrez.

While Grosjean scored a fifth-place finish in Haas F1 Team’s second race and picked up 29 points across the course of the season, Gutierrez failed to record a single top-10 result.

The Mexican was replaced by Magnussen for 2017, with the Dane taking 11 points through the first 10 races of the season.

Despite the fluidity of the driver market for 2018, Haas revealed in an interview with the official F1 website that the team is planning to race with Grosjean and Magnussen together once again next year.

“We will run with the same drivers that we have this year again next year. That is a given,” Haas said.

“And given the other continuity aspects, we should be better racers next season.”

Haas had been tipped to take on a Ferrari junior such as Antonio Giovinazzi or Charles Leclerc for 2018 given its technical ties to the Italian marque.

Grosjean is understood to be a target for Renault should it miss out on re-signing Fernando Alonso, while Magnussen penned a multi-year deal upon arrival at Haas at the start of the season.

Reflecting on Magnussen’s contribution, Haas believes the team has benefitted from his greater race performance that has allowed it to match its debut season points total in just 10 races in 2017.

“Esteban was a good driver. He was as fast as Romain in practice, but I think that Kevin has an edge in terms of race experience,” Haas said.

“He can score points and that was the key for bringing him on board. Kevin can grab points and Romain can too.

“We now have 29 points. Last year around this time we also had 29 points, but did not score for the rest of the season.

“So now if we can score another 29 points by Abu Dhabi, that would be a great position.”

Pirelli: Slow puncture caused Vettel’s British GP tire failure

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Pirelli has determined that a slow puncture was the cause of Sebastian Vettel’s Formula 1 tire failure towards the end of last Sunday’s British Grand Prix.

Vettel suffered a failure on his front-left tire on the penultimate lap of the race at Silverstone while running third, forcing him into a late pit stop that ultimately left him P7 at the checkered flag.

The incident was just minutes after Ferrari teammate Kimi Raikkonen had also hit trouble with his front-left tire, although Pirelli stressed after the race that the incidents were unrelated.

Pirelli announced on Friday that, after conducting extensive analysis of the tire, it could confirm that its initial belief that Vettel had suffered a puncture was indeed correct.

“As appeared clear since Sunday afternoon, a full investigation has now confirmed that the original cause of the failure was a slow puncture,” Pirelli said.

“The consequent driving back to the pits on an underinflated and then flat tire led to the final failure.

“Kimi Raikkonen’s damaged tire shows less evidence of what occurred, so further tests and analysis are still ongoing in Pirelli’s laboratories and indoor testing facilities.

“It will take a few more days to reach a definitive conclusion.”

BMW completes first test with 2018 M8 GTE in Germany

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BMW has completed the maiden track test of its new M8 GTE car that will race in the FIA World Endurance Championship and the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship in 2018.

BMW announced back in September that it would be returning to the 24 Hours of Le Mans through the WEC in 2018, entering the GTE-Pro class.

The German manufacturer has since been developing its new M8 GTE car which will also replace the existing M6 GTLM in the IMSA-run series, where it is raced by Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing.

BMW announced on Thursday that it had completed a three-day test last week at the Lausitzring in Germany, with factory drivers Martin Tomczyk and Maxime Martin both enjoying time behind the wheel.

“To see the BMW M8 GTE on the racetrack makes me very proud. Everyone involved has done a magnificent job in recent months to allow us to reach this milestone in the development of our new flagship for the GT racing scene,” said BMW head of motorsport Jens Marquardt.

“In the first instance, the purpose of a test like this is obviously to get to know the car. In this regard, greater emphasis is placed on the safety aspect than performance. However, the first impression of the BMW M8 GTE out on the track is a very positive one.”

“Firstly, I feel very honored to have been able to drive at the first real test of the BMW M8 GTE on the racetrack. I had great fun with the car,” added Tomczyk.

“The BMW M8 GTE is good to drive from the outset, and it is easy for us drivers to work out the way it handles, which is important. We got a lot of kilometers under our belt, and gathered a lot of data. We also took our first steps with regard to performance, which is by no means a given at a first test.

“We will obviously work more intensively on that at the coming tests, and will build on the strong basis we established here at the Lausitzring.”

The BMW M8 GTE is set to enjoy another on-track test next month, with Antonio Felix da Costa due for some lap time.