Photo: Team AKKA-ASP

Serralles, Marciello land AKKA-ASP Mercedes seats in Blancpain GT

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Two drivers who’d come close to reaching their respective top levels in open-wheel – Felix Serralles and Raffaele Marciello – have instead gone the sports car route for 2017 having been confirmed at Jerome Policand’s Team AKKA-ASP for the upcoming season in the Blancpain GT Series.

The two drivers will be split in a pair of Mercedes-AMG GT3 cars for both the Endurance Cup and Sprint Cup races, Serralles with Dani Juncadella in the No. 88 car and Marciello with Michael Meadows in the No. 90 car. Tristan Vautier (No. 88) and Matthias Lauda (No. 90), both of whom have full-season appointments in the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship and FIA World Endurance Championship, respectively, are the third drivers for these two PRO class entries at Endurance Cup races.

Serralles enjoyed a particularly busy offseason with his first test in both an IndyCar with Andretti Autosport at Sebring International Raceway, and in an Oreca 05 Nissan LMP2 car with G-Drive Racing (with Jota Sport running the operation) at the FIA WEC end-of-term rookie test in Bahrain.

After two years in Indy Lights, first with Belardi Auto Racing and then with Carlin, Serralles won a few races but was ultimately in the eye of the storm at the Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca season finale when he pulled aside to allow Ed Jones through to score enough points for the title. The Puerto Rican needed to sort his own future for 2017, and now has.

Marciello was at a similar open-wheel crossroads after his stint in Ferrari’s Young Driver Academy ended. Three seasons in GP2 where he struggled to properly contend for a championship saw him score only one win and finish at best, fourth in the standings. Marciello also had a handful of race weekends as third driver with Sauber F1 Team in 2015, but never competed beyond a practice session.

Juncadella has previous touring car experience in DTM and also did a handful of free practice sessions in F1 with Sahara Force India. Meadows has both single-seater and GT experience. Interestingly, Juncadella beat Marciello to the 2012 Formula 3 Euroseries title.

The full Team AKKA-ASP roster is below. Testing takes place in Paul Ricard March 13-14 with the seasons opening at Misano April 1-2 (Sprint) and Monza April 22-23 (Endurance).

Blancpain GT Series Endurance Cup

PRO category
#90 Raffaele MARCIELLO (ITA) – Michael MEADOWS (GBR) – Matthias LAUDA (AUT)
#88 Felix SERRALLES (PRI) – Daniel JUNCADELLA (ESP) – Tristan VAUTIER (FRA)

Pro-AM category
#87 Jean Luc BEAUBELIQUE (FRA) – Mauro RICCI (ITA) – Jules GOUNON (FRA)
#89 Daniele PERFETTI (SUI) – Alex FONTANA (SUI) – Ludovic BADEY (FRA)

Blancpain GT Series Sprint Cup

PRO category
#90 Raffaele MARCIELLO (ITA) – Michael MEADOWS (GBR)
#88 Felix SERRALLES (PRI) – Daniel JUNCADELLA (ESP)

Pro-AM category
#87 Jean Luc BEAUBELIQUE (FRA) – Jules GOUNON (FRA)
#89 Christophe BOURRET (FRA) – Jean-Philippe BELLOC (FRA)

Blancpain GT Sport Club

#72 Anthony Pons (FRA)

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.