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.”

NASCAR America: Newgarden recaps rise to IndyCar title (VIDEO)

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Newly crowned Verizon IndyCar Series champion Josef Newgarden joined NBCSN’s NASCAR America on Tuesday to reflect on his rise to the top of the series.

Newgarden chatted with show host Carolyn Manno about his championship season, integration to Team Penske and bonding with his three teammates, Will Power, Helio Castroneves and Simon Pagenaud.

Pagenaud won Sunday’s GoPro Grand Prix of Sonoma season finale but it wasn’t enough to overcome Newgarden’s points lead.

 

Report: Verizon likely to drop IndyCar title sponsorship after ’18

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One of the under-the-radar elements that’s percolated in the Verizon IndyCar Series paddock this year is Verizon’s activation strategy itself, in its fourth year of its first five-year deal as title sponsor of the championship.

Hulman & Co. CEO Mark Miles, head of INDYCAR’s parent company, told the Sports Business Journal’s Adam Stern while he thinks it’s likely Verizon will end its title sponsorship of the series after 2018, they hope to continue the relationship in a different capacity.

While Verizon got in before 2014, IndyCar was a viable platform for the wireless company to activate in a way it couldn’t in NASCAR, when Sprint was the Cup Series’ title sponsor.

That’s since changed with Sprint’s contract ending after 2016. Verizon still activates within the paddock, working with CSM Sport & Entertainment, but its activation outside the paddock has seemed rather limited this year.

Verizon’s primary point of access or reference point of digital technology has been the Verizon IndyCar Mobile app, which was initially only for Verizon Wireless users but was later expanded to other carriers. That provides some app-specific exclusive content as well as a compilation of written, photographic and video content from IndyCar.com.

Even in the paddock, a Verizon-sponsored “Lunch with Legends” series – where some of IndyCar’s stars from the past had lunch at tracks with fans to provide some exclusive access – was not retained for 2017. Verizon hosted an event at a 5G-outfitted house in Indianapolis this year, prior to the Indianapolis 500, to showcase some of that network capability and virtual reality (VR) technology.

Provided Verizon does not continue as title sponsor past 2018, it would leave the IndyCar series in almost the same situation as prior title sponsor IZOD was in 2013, with a lame duck year.

The absence of a Verizon contract renewal has lurked beneath the surface all year in a year when INDYCAR (sanctioning body) has announced several long-term extensions with key manufacturer partners Dallara, Firestone, Chevrolet, Honda and many of its race tracks.

The competition side of IndyCar has done rather well and has enough momentum with Jay Frye at the head of its President of Competition and Operations for the last two years.

But it’s imperative for IndyCar’s sake its commercial side does as well too, which will make the 2018 season an interesting one from a “how to progress” and find a partner that can truly activate to lift the series’ profile even bigger than it is now.

The title sponsor evolution and the series’ new TV contract, with the current one set to end after 2018, enter as the early leaders in the clubhouse for biggest off-track stories to follow over the winter and into the start of 2018.

Vettel loses huge ground in title race after Singapore blip

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SINGAPORE (AP) In the space of three races, Sebastian Vettel has dropped twice as far behind Lewis Hamilton as he was ahead of him.

After winning the Hungarian Grand Prix in late July, Vettel led by 14 points, with both drivers on four wins heading into the summer break.

But after crashing out on the first lap in Sunday’s Singapore GP, the Ferrari driver trails Hamilton by 28.

“That was very disappointing and it was definitely not the result we were expecting,” Ferrari team principal Maurizio Arrivabene said. “But it doesn’t mean that the battle is all over, just that it has become more difficult.”

Yet it might seem to Mercedes that, for all of his experience, Vettel is throwing away the Formula One title.

“Clearly we would not feel comfortable in Ferrari’s shoes,” Mercedes head of motorsport Toto Wolff said. “But this is not the time for cheering.”

Hamilton has won all three races relatively comfortably since the championship resumed in August, and with only six GPs remaining Vettel faces a huge task to stop Hamilton.

“We guarantee that we will be fighting right to the final corner of the very last Grand Prix of the year,” Arrivabene said.

Mercedes is still expecting a challenge.

“This result doesn’t change a thing in the big picture,” Wolff said. “If anything, it’s a stark reminder that there are six more opportunities for the luck to go against us this season, just as it happened to Ferrari.”

But it will be abundantly harder now for Vettel because, unlike last season, Hamilton has so far not retired from any races. Although he has failed to finish on the podium four times for Mercedes this season, that is the same number as Vettel’s finishes outside the top three.

After winning three of the first six races, Vettel’s grip has loosened with only one win in the past eight.

Points have been thrown away, too.

At the British GP in July, Vettel looked at least assured of a podium finish until an unexpected tire problem at the end of the race bumped him down to seventh.

On Sunday, he had a great chance to win starting from pole position on a hard-braking track much more suited to Ferrari than Mercedes.

A few seconds later, he was out of the race.

Vettel made a hasty error of judgment trying to cut off Max Verstappen heading into the first turn and ultimately caused a crash that also took out Ferrari teammate Kimi Raikkonen – who had made a blistering start – Verstappen and Fernando Alonso.

Vettel apologized to his Ferrari team afterward.

With both Ferraris out, Mercedes had a clear path as Hamilton won his 60th career race and teammate Valtteri Bottas took third.

Mercedes faced a similar scenario at the Spanish GP last year, when Hamilton and then-teammate Nico Rosberg collided on lap 1 and both went out. Mercedes was livid with both drivers that day, and came perilously close to imposing team orders on them.

“You kind of feel for Ferrari. I have been in the situation of losing both cars,” Wolff said. “I know how bitter this is.”

The difference was that Hamilton and Rosberg were fighting each other for the title and, with no main rival from another team, it effectively cost them nothing.

Within Mercedes, Hamilton’s title charge is now the priority.

Although team orders are very unlikely to be imposed, it is clear – unofficially at least – that Bottas will be racing to help Hamilton equal Vettel on four world titles.

Wolff confirmed as much when he inadvertently referred to Bottas as “our second driver” in his post-race debriefing on Sunday, before quickly correcting himself to say “ah, other driver.”

Bottas has had a fine first season since joining as an emergency late replacement for Rosberg, who retired days after winning the 2016 title. Bottas has even exceeded expectations with 10 podiums in 14 races, including two wins, and sits in third place overall.

With a new contract for next year already signed, the Finnish driver has no need to impress Mercedes management and can play an ideal support role to Hamilton in the closing part of the campaign.

Still, he has a little bit of ambition left.

“There are plenty of races to come and plenty of opportunities,” said Bottas, who is 23 points behind Vettel. “Definitely Sebastian is the next target.”

With Hamilton ahead and Bottas closing behind, Vettel is under pressure to deliver at the Malaysian GP in two weeks’ time.

Ocon confirmed for another year at Force India

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Sahara Force India will keep the same driver lineup in 2018, with Esteban Ocon confirming Tuesday he’ll stay alongside Sergio Perez next season.

Although the two drivers have occasionally been at odds this year as Ocon has threatened Perez’s place as team leader, both have been instrumental in keeping Force India a clear fourth place in the Constructor’s Championship, at the top of the crowded midfield behind Mercedes, Ferrari and Red Bull.

Ocon’s had a very strong year, with 56 points scored and having made the points in all but one race (Monaco) this season. His best finish is fifth at the Spanish Grand Prix.

Being confirmed for 2018 means like others, the jockeying for spots in 2019 will be fascinating to watch.