Barber start last year. Photo: PWC

PWC: 2017 GT, GTS season preview

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Pirelli World Challenge’s name is more accurate than normal entering 2017.

The Pirelli portion is the component that stays most intact, while “World” represents both the diversity of cars and drivers entered as the series continues its push to be further aligned with SRO and the international sports car scene. “Challenge?” That’s deciphering the newness that’s on tap this year with SprintX taking a greater role in the overall series structure at its standalone weekends, and navigating the switch from longtime sanctioning partner SCCA to USAC.

Alas, one thing that remains intact for 2017 is the depth in the quality of the GT field, which has no shortage of top names, teams and manufacturers present this season.

Alvaro Parente returns to defend his title in his No. 9 K-PAX Racing McLaren 650S GT3, following a dramatic championship victory of a year ago. Parente now knows all the circuits he didn’t this time last year and will be perhaps a greater force to be reckoned with. In new teammates Bryan Sellers and Mike Hedlund, Parente also has two capable gunners who should pose more of a win threat more regularly than talented but lesser experienced youngsters Austin Cindric and Colin Thompson last year. Hedlund, a GTA entrant, has the Flying Lizard crew at his disposal for a title pursuit there.

Two other teams mirror K-PAX with drivers capable of winning both in GT and GTA. The first is Wright Motorsports, with Patrick Long and Michael Schein in their two Porsche 911 GT3 Rs. Long was desperately unlucky to lose last year’s title at the end while Schein won races but missed a few races early that cost him points. The other is Magnus Racing, which arrives in PWC with a strong two-car entry of Audi R8 LMS cars. Pierre Kaffer is a winner-to-be in GT with John Potter capable of the same in GTA.

Johnny O’Connell and Michael Cooper will be keen to return the Cadillac Racing Cadillac ATS-V.Rs to the top of the perch after being dethroned last year. O’Connell, a four-time champion, has lost none of his speed nor motivation. Cooper impressed last year with a couple wins and fully justified his promotion to the Cadillac team after winning a GTS title with Blackdog Speed Shop’s Chevrolet Camaro Z/28.R in 2015. Both will again be title contenders this season in their Velocity Red and Vector Blue liveried cars.

The two other two-car, GT-only teams come from RealTime Racing with its Acura NSX GT3s and Bentley Team Absolute with its Bentley Continental GT3s. Ryan Eversley has won races in each of the last two years in RealTime’s old TLX-GT and will look to continue that run aboard one of the new NSX cars; sports car veteran Peter Kox will be keen to prove he has the consistent speed to contend. Bentley lacks a dynamic star at the moment; Adderly Fong has some potential while the absence of young talent Andrew Palmer, injured last year at Lime Rock, still stings.

Plenty of one-car efforts are set to contend in GT, though. Between Ryan Dalziel’s CRP Mercedes, Jon Fogarty’s GAINSCO/Bob Stallings Porsche, Alex Riberas’ R. Ferri Motorsport Ferrari and James Davison in a TRG Aston Martin, there’s no shortage of talent here.

The GTA field also includes GMG Racing with two Porsches, including one for last year’s GT Cup champion Alec Udell. The capable, experienced and still super young Udell, only 21, is the 2017 candidate who can be most like Bryan Heitkotter and Michael Lewis, who starts out as a GTA driver and can win races there before an eventual progression into GT. Sadly, neither Heitkotter nor Lewis – race winners last year – are present for this year’s season opener. Notable in the rest of the class is the perennially active Tim Pappas, in a new Mercedes-AMG GT3 after recent years running either an old Mercedes, Viper or Porsche for his Black Swan Racing team.

GT Cup is still active but with only two cars, one of which a Ferrari Challenge Evo which will mark the first time a non-Porsche Cup car is entered within the previously single-make class.

GTS’ 19-car field includes a couple venerable old GTS-spec cars mixed in with more of the new GT4-spec cars. With last year’s champion Brett Sandberg not listed, it’s left to others such as Lawson Aschenbach in the debuting Camaro GT4, Nate Stacy now in a Flying Lizard Porsche Cayman GT4 MR and Parker Chase in the Ginetta G55 who are among the class favorites. Andrew Aquilante returns with his Phoenix Performance Ford Mustang Boss 302. Ian James, in the debuting but as-yet-not-homologated for GT4 Panoz Avezzano GT, will also be one to watch. Like the Ginetta, the SIN R1 GT4 and KTM X-Bow GT4 are also still in the field, joined as well by the new McLaren 570S GT4.

PWC will be interesting to watch this year because its five weekends with IndyCar see the traditional sprint format, a PWC staple, maintained. The two-driver, 60-minute SprintX format, introduced in a three-race trial last year, takes on a greater role starting at VIR in late April. That weekend will see PWC fully on its own, with all of its classes between the GT combination, GTS, and the three Touring Car classes (TC, TCA, TCB).

The fate of a lot of competitors can also in large part come down to Balance of Performance, which in tandem with SRO continues into 2017 and sees different BoP tables issued for different tracks. How you battle/overcome the BoP may have an impact on your year.

That said, PWC has prided itself on ensuring a largely fair and level playing field, and the number of manufacturers entered within GT largely bares that point out with a total of nine in GT/GTA again (Mercedes-AMG, Cadillac, Ferrari, Porsche, Audi, McLaren, Acura, Bentley, Aston Martin) set to run starting this weekend, and that’s before a Nissan return.

Enjoy what’s known for now, and look forward to the series’ continued evolution as the year goes on.

Porsche announces LMP1 withdrawal from FIA WEC

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Porsche has announced its withdrawal from the FIA World Endurance Championship’s LMP1 class, the top class, a year earlier than its current contract called it to.

The move comes after a high-profile meeting in Germany to evaluate the effectiveness of Porsche’s top-tier LMP1 program to the overall Porsche brand.

Additionally, Porsche has confirmed its entry into the FIA Formula E Championship from season six, starting in 2019.

This aligns with the company’s new electric direction focus for its product line, Porsche Strategy 2025, which will see Porsche develop a combination of pure GT vehicles and fully electric sports cars, such as the first fully electric Porsche model, based upon the Mission E concept car.

Porsche released the following statement today about the end of its LMP1 tenure:

“Building up the Le Mans team from scratch was a huge challenge. Over the years, we have developed an incredibly successful and professional team. This will be our basis going forward. I am certain that we will maintain our high level in Formula E. Confidence is high, and we are excited to get started,” said Fritz Enzinger, Vice President in charge of LMP1.

Porsche said it plans to keep the LMP1 team intact, including its factory drivers, elsewhere within the framework of the company. Additionally, the new mid-engined 911 RSR will continue in the GT ranks; the new car won its first race in the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship with Dirk Werner and Patrick Pilet at Lime Rock Park this past week.

The Porsche 919 Hybrid won the last three 24 Hours of Le Mans overall, taking its overall win total to a Le Mans record 19 wins. It’s also won the last two FIA World Endurance Championship LMP1 championships, with Mark Webber, Timo Bernhard and Brendon Hartley in 2015 and with Neel Jani, Romain Dumas and Marc Lieb last year.

The move leaves the FIA WEC’s marquee LMP1 class in a difficult position from 2018 and beyond, as Porsche joins fellow VAG brand Audi as a second manufacturer to withdraw from the top class in as many years.

Toyota is left as the single manufacturer, its contract good through 2019. But while LMP1 privateer has witnessed several announcements of new programs, how many actually materialize beyond the press releases into cars on the grid remains to be seen.

Despite the excitement over manufacturers in the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship’s Daytona Prototype international (DPi) formula, the DPis paired with the 2017-spec LMP2 cars in IMSA’s Prototype class, the Automobile Club de l’Ouest would need to allow DPis to race at Le Mans if they are to make an appearance in Europe. Right now, the cars are ineligible.

The GTE-Pro ranks will be bolstered with BMW’s arrival with the new M8 GTE, joining the existing four manufacturers there, and that will likely emerge as the series’ marquee class.

Porsche announces entry to Formula E for season six

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Porsche has announced that it will be joining the FIA Formula E grid in 2019, taking the 12th and final slot currently available.

In the same announcement that confirmed the closure of its LMP1 program at the end of the season, Porsche revealed that it would be moving into the all-electric series for the 2019/20 campaign with a factory-backed operation.

“Entering Formula E and achieving success in this category are the logical outcomes of our Mission
E road car program,” said Michael Steiner, Member of the Executive Board for Research and
Development at Porsche AG.

“The growing freedom for in-house technology developments makes Formula E attractive to us. Porsche is working with alternative, innovative drive concepts.

“For us, Formula E is the ultimate competitive environment for driving forward the development of high-performance vehicles in areas such as environmental friendliness, efficiency and sustainability.”

Porsche has held an interest in Formula E for some time, with many of its key motorsport bosses venturing to the recent races in Monaco and Berlin in order to undertake research regarding a possible entry.

Following Monday’s news that Mercedes would be taking up its option on an entry to Formula E for season six, Porsche’s arrival acts as another huge boost for the burgeoning electric championship, which already enjoys involvement from manufacturers such as Renault, Audi, BMW and Jaguar.

“I’m delighted to welcome Porsche to the FIA Formula E Championship,” Formula E CEO Alejandro Agag said. “If somebody told me when we started this project five years ago, that we’d be announcing a partnership with a brand like Porsche, I wouldn’t have believed it.

“To have a name like Porsche in Formula E, with all it represents in terms of racing and heritage – and in terms of sport cars – is an inflexion point in our quest to change the public perception about electric cars.

“The electric revolution continues, and Formula E remains the championship for that revolution.”

FIA president Jean Todt added: “Porsche is a brand which has a fantastic history in motorsport, and its intention to join the FIA Formula E Championship alongside so many of the world’s biggest car manufacturers is very positive.

“It’s clear that the hard work done to create a relevant laboratory for developing electric vehicle technologies has been successful, and I look forward to seeing Formula E continue to be a place of great sporting competition as well as innovation.

“I’m very happy that Porsche is coming to Formula E, but I regret their decision to leave the World Endurance Championship.”

The decision to end its LMP1 program and quit the FIA World Endurance Championship with one year still to run on its contract sees Porsche follow in the footsteps of sister Volkswagen Group brand Audi, which pulled a similar move less than 12 months ago.

Audi closed its long-running and hugely-successful LMP1 team at the end of last year in order to shift its focus to Formula E, enjoying works status with the ABT Schaeffler team from season four.

Porsche’s entry to Formula E marks its first foray into single-seater racing with a factory team since the end of its CART program in 1990.

Bottas feels at home at Mercedes as a challenger, not No. 2

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BUDAPEST, Hungary (AP) Valtteri Bottas feels like he finally belongs at Mercedes, and that is not as a support driver to Lewis Hamilton.

The Finnish driver has exceeded expectations since joining from Williams as an emergency replacement for Nico Rosberg, who dramatically retired days after winning last year’s Formula One championship.

“I feel very much part of the team, I feel I can definitely perform at my best level,” Bottas said Thursday ahead of this weekend’s Hungarian Grand Prix. “(There is) plenty more to come.”

The widely held perception was that Bottas, who had never won a race before this season, was clearly arriving as the No. 2 behind Hamilton, a three-time F1 champion.

Yet at the halfway point of the 20-race season, Bottas is in third place overall, 22 points behind Hamilton and 23 behind four-time F1 champion Sebastian Vettel of Ferrari. That puts him within touching distance.

Bottas won in Russia and Austria, and finished second in Canada, Azerbaijan and Britain. With four straight podium finishes, he has good momentum for the Hungarian GP, the last race before a month-long summer break.

If not for his failure to finish the Spanish GP in May, Bottas could be even closer to Hamilton and Vettel.

“I feel like I am getting up to speed now. In a way I hope there wasn’t a break,” Bottas said Thursday. “I always set targets higher. I didn’t expect myself to be behind (Hamilton) all the time. I’ve shown it is possible to battle and show my skills.”

Asked if he thinks he can win the title, the 27-year-old Bottas says “everything is wide open,” adding “I believe I can fight for the pole (position) here.”

The twisting nature of the 4.4-kilometer (2.7-mile) Hungaroring circuit may favor Ferrari more than Mercedes, however.

Mercedes struggled at this season’s Monaco GP, which is a similarly tight-turning track where overtaking is much harder. Vettel won in Monaco from pole, while Bottas was fourth for Mercedes and Hamilton managed only seventh spot.

“We’ve learnt a lot since Monaco,” Bottas said. “I think it will be a good test for our car, we’re expecting a close battle.”

F1 Paddock Pass: Hungarian Grand Prix (VIDEO)

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Formula 1’s final race before the summer break takes place this weekend with the Hungarian Grand Prix from the Hungaroring in Budapest.

It’s a busy time of year and a highly important weekend on the calendar, with the two championship combatants only separated by one point and all the silly season talk about 2018 heating up – particularly with the two-day young driver test set to run on Tuesday and Wednesday of next week after the race.

And with the confirmation the Halo device is set to be introduced next year, what are the drivers thoughts on that?

All that makes for ideal timing of this weekend’s pre-race edition of the NBC Sports Group original digital series Paddock Pass with Will Buxton checking in from the ground in Hungary.

Here’s the pre-race episode, below.