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Matty Brabham optimistic for Indy 500; remains ‘hungry, ambitious’

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Matthew Brabham, or “Matty,” has long been one of the talents right on the cusp of full-time Verizon IndyCar Series stardom… if he had enough for a full-season opportunity.

The two-time champion on the Mazda Road to Indy presented by Cooper Tires ladder, who went back-to-back in Cooper Tires USF2000 Championship Powered by Mazda and Pro Mazda Championship Presented by Cooper Tires in 2012 and 2013 respectively, is working towards a return for at least his second consecutive Indianapolis 500 appearance, and feels cautiously optimistic he’ll be in the field of 33 cars in May.

Brabham has returned home to Indianapolis this week after spending the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg weekend networking and renewing acquaintances. He was in Adelaide, Australia for Robby Gordon’s SPEED Energy Stadium Super Trucks season opener a week before that, and won one of the two races this weekend at St. Petersburg.

“That was it, yeah, be down there to catch up and have a chat with a lot of people I’ve been talking with over the last couple months,” Brabham told NBC Sports. “I had a lot of meetings and talked with a lot of people.

“I’m just doing everything I can to work towards the 500. It’s all positive right now. I’ve got PIRTEK and others helping me out… ‘Crusher’ (Brett Murray) is helping, working on things… and I’m working with Mickey Ryan as well.

“Yes there’s a lot of other drivers out there, but I think I have a good chance to get to the ‘500. They’ll need 33 cars and there’s quite a few seats left. The opportunities should still be there for a deal.”

A rough draft of the Indianapolis 500 grid at the moment sees 25 confirmed car/driver combinations, the 21 full-season cars plus announced entries for veterans Juan Pablo Montoya (Team Penske), Oriol Servia (Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing), Sage Karam (Dreyer & Reinbold Racing) and Jay Howard (Team One Cure with Schmidt Peterson Motorsports).

With Honda staffed to prepare for 18 Indianapolis 500 cars, it would leave Chevrolet with 15 cars to staff. There remain announced, confirmed vacancies at Andretti Autosport (fifth car) and Juncos Racing (possible second car), with others to be filled in.

Brabham, meanwhile, is in the tier of recent Mazda Road to Indy graduates who have the talent but not the funding, timing or opportunity to be in a full-season IndyCar seat at present. His counterparts are probably Spencer Pigot, Gabby Chaves, Karam and RC Enerson, all of whom are under 25 with limited if not always full-time IndyCar race experience the last couple years.

At just 22, Brabham rose quickly through the MRTI but stalled out after a tough first season in Indy Lights in 2014. The last two years, Brabham’s become one of racing’s most versatile drivers with IndyCar, Indy Lights, USF2000 testing, Stadium Super Trucks and FIA Formula E all on his scorecard, but hasn’t been in a full-time ride now for three years.

Brabham and girlfriend Kimberly Bogle during the 2016 Indianapolis 500 parade. (Photo: Getty Images)

That determination to keep plugging away is keeping him focused and as Brabham explains, it’s the rough patches on the journey that make whatever payoff all the more successful.

“It’s definitely been character-building. I’m learning just as much doing one-offs and not driving as often as I like to, compared to if I was full-time,” Brabham said.

“In the Mazda Road to Indy, my focus was pure racing. I wasn’t really thinking about other things. Yeah I had to think about if I didn’t win, what would I do… but that was an afterthought. It worked out until Indy Lights, and I didn’t win the scholarship, and it’s been tough since then without the scholarship end.

“I’ve learned so much on the business side…. because that’s the most important thing, since I don’t have mom and dad to pay the bills. My mom and dad put budget in for my first USF2000 along with a sponsor from Australia.

“I’m grateful for the battle. The guys that do well when they do make it – my idols like Scott Dixon and Will Power – they’re so good at what they do and they’re so hungry for it. The guys that are champions have gone through their journey, struggles with money, put everything on the line and risk it!”

Brabham watched with great interest – and praise – as his primary MRTI sparring partner, Pigot, had the drive of his IndyCar career to date Sunday in St. Petersburg with Ed Carpenter Racing. But Pigot’s early charge was halted when his left rear brake disc popped and he lost time for repairs, and eventually retired.

“It’s almost like a club you’ve joined, the ‘unemployed open-wheel driver club,'” Brabham laughed. “We’re all working on what we can to do. We’re all talking with same people, but we have different approaches! It should come down to talent, but a lot comes down to timing and luck. You have to create your own luck. That said, when you see each other get rides, it gives us confidence for the guys in the club to keep working at it.

“With the right team, there’s no reason we can’t succeed. Seeing Spencer do what he is comes from having a spot. It’s when you’re thrown in to last-minute deals, trying to string things together that it gets hard. If we had solid programs, we can do it too. Spencer’s a good example of that. We’re all young and hungry. We want to do everything we can to prove we can to do well. It’s just managing to get in the door.”

Brabham prepares for a run. (Photo: Getty Images)

Reflecting on his month of May program last year, Brabham actually overachieved more than he realized at the time with a limited budget.

While the PIRTEK Team Murray team brought flair and fun in spades to the Speedway, it didn’t have huge resources and as the de facto second car for KV Racing Technology, was not the best handling machine either. After an impressive Grand Prix where Brabham nearly advanced to Q2 on his debut, qualifying 14th and finishing 16th.

On the oval, it took Brabham doing some sterling work in collaboration with engineer Andy Brown to even hang onto the car. Starting 27th and finishing 22nd doesn’t sound like much, but it had been a good month’s work for Brabham in his No. 61 Chevrolet.

“Yeah man that was the challenge!” he said. “I was thinking about this over the last couple weeks. I could be – and was – hard on myself. When I got out of the month of May, I wasn’t very happy about my performance. I wanted to be top-10 and top-five, and show right off the bat I can win races. That was a bit of a too high goal.

“But now I think about the situation I was in. The first time I’d ever driven on (Firestone) red tires in qualifying was at the GP and I was 14th (in a 25-car grid). Now I look back on certain aspects, and I’m pretty proud of that. There’s a lot of issues and struggles, but that happens with any team.

“A guy like me never gets to have a full testing program. I hadn’t been in a car for a full season. It’s been one-offs since 2014, and there I was last year back in an IndyCar, open-wheel, I’d raced Stadium Super Trucks. It was just being thrown in on one-offs. But I’m happy with how it all went. I had some ‘moments’ in the 500 month, setup, running with a loose car, and had one big moment in qualifying trim and saved it… but that was more luck.”

Brabham knows he can do it – a number of key people in the paddock know he can, as well – and knowing how quickly he adapted from his first test in a commercial shoot at Iowa Speedway a couple years ago was proof positive of that point.

“The moment – the first time I got into an IndyCar – I was running at Iowa with Marco (Andretti) and those guys at Andretti Autosport. That’s the first ever track to jump in, and that’s not easy!

“From that moment I knew I could run with those guys. I could be competitive. I know I could get in there. With the right team, there’s no reason you can’t.

“When you’re under that much pressure, making it to IndyCar, and still in it after the hardships, I think you’re a lot more motivated when you do make it. I’d rather have the easy path, but nothing’s easy. Every day makes me more hungry and ambitious.”

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.