Enerson and Jorge have worked together for seven years. Photo courtesy Jonatan Jorge

Q&A: Jonatan Jorge on JJRD’s rise in driver coaching arena

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One of the areas in motorsport that is vital to success that’s more behind the scenes is driver coaching. Drivers are always looking to find the extra edge on track, and a lot of that comes from the willingness to learn and adapt to advice and feedback.

Brazilian Jonatan Jorge started as a driver in his own right and still races occasionally, but the now Bradenton, Fla.-based “JJ” has carved out a successful 20-plus year career in motorsports primarily in the coaching field. He started JJRD – or JJ Racing Development – to help drivers in the arena and has really seen his business, which has grown primarily from word of mouth, take off in the last couple years.

We caught up with “JJ” as the 2017 North American open-wheel and sports car seasons get going in earnest with this weekend’s Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg and next week’s Mobil 1 Twelve Hours of Sebring, to get a look inside how the business has grown and what some of the tips are for young drivers he offers. One of Jorge’s clients, Joel Janco, will race in the a Ligier JS P3 Nissan for Duqueine Engineering in the Michelin Le Mans Cup this year; Jorge will drive with Janco at the Red Bull Ring in July with RC Enerson in the car the last three weekends in Paul Ricard (August), Spa (September) and Portimao, Portugal (October).

Some of the clients Jorge will work with this year include Enerson, Austin Versteeg (Lamborghini Super Trofeo driver), Oliver Askew, Ricky Donison and Anthony Martin (Cape Motorsports in MRTI), Tom Kimber-Smith, Jose Gutierrez and Mike Guasch (Enerson’s teammates in the No. 52 PR1/Mathiasen Motorsports Ligier JS P217 Gibson in IMSA), Janco, Gerry Kraut and others. Martin won both Pro Mazda races this weekend and Askew his first USF2000 race at St. Petersburg.

The JJRD logo appears on several helmets. Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography

MotorSportsTalk: Each driver I’m sure is different, but what are some things you look for when it comes to working with certain drivers? What things do you hope to see them improve upon?

Jonatan Jorge: “Every driver is different as you said and requires a different approach. For me, it’s important to evaluate the strengths and weaknesses and make sure that they are aware of them, once we are on the same page it’s time to go to work and start to polish every area. Every driver has their own style of driving,how they retain information and how they react to the feed back. It’s a little bit of a juggling act but I found that not trying to change a driver but instead making them the best they can be with their own ‘flavor’ tends to make the process of growing smooth and exciting with always having a particular task to improve on.

“Being excited for the work ahead I guess is what I look forward to the most. It shows me that they are putting in the same effort I am, it’s very rewarding. It’s always great to work with different level of experiences, even working with pro drivers at the top of their game is fun to do and the things we can see from the outside always brings a different perspective and creates areas for improvement.”

MST: What are some of your more rewarding stories of drivers you’ve coached? Since there’s not really a metric to define it, how do you define success from a coaching perspective? 

JJ: “Grabbing a driver that very few believe can be a champion and turning them into one is the best feeling in the world for me. I’ve worked with drivers that are used to winning everything in karting, but getting a driver who hasn’t tasted that feeling yet and turning them in to a champion is about as good as it gets! Then when you have the chance to work and help a pro, self-sufficient driver in the sport that has reached a rut, to then see them through is quite positive.”

Askew and Cape are new to JJRD this year, but already winners. Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography

MST: For a number of years, word-of-mouth has been the primary way people have contacted you. How has that developed over the years to where now you have an even busier year ahead? 

JJ: “Word of mouth in this very small racing world is really all you need in terms of coaching, because that means you’re generally getting the results you need and keeping your own ego in line! In the last few years, I’ve had the chance to put my logo on a few drivers’ helmets and if we’re winning, that helps create more opportunities.

“I am very lucky to have been able to be fulfilled with my job for a long time now and I get my ‘fix’ of being competitive. When I made the decision to stop racing many years ago I often wonder how I could replace that feeling of chasing that competitiveness,of trying to be the best,trying to be better then the rest, I think I found that in the coaching I have been doing. I could not really imagine doing something else. Maybe there is more money doing some other work, but I would be miserable!”

MST: How do you maintain such a calm and chill presence as a coach? What are your keys to being a successful coach and seeing the tips you’re providing translate to drivers when they get behind the wheel?

JJ: “Funny you should ask, when I raced I was anything but calm, and I tended to do the completely opposite of what I teach! I guess making many mistake in the past with my own racing career now serves me well in teaching the right from wrong to the drivers in a very simple way. I am without a doubt a much better coach then I was ever a race car driver. Teaching them how to prioritize the difference between what you can control and what you can not is very important for me and it simplify thoughts fairly easy. With experience, you can sort of see things developing ahead and translate a sense of calm to the drivers that things will work out on their own time. There is no need to rush anything, so long as you understand the work that needs to be put in, you will be rewarded pretty shortly.”

MST: How do you measure a driver’s improvement? Is it purely results based or is it more in technique improvement and maturation, or development? 

JJ: “There is improvement everywhere all the time!  You are always evolving, sometimes you run past scenarios and don’t even realize you have just got something on your back pocket to use in the future. You are always shaping things from the driving technique, to communicating to the engineer, evolving yourself as a person, or maturing in to what it takes to be a professional in this sport. Or, if you are already a professional, you’re finding a different way to approach situations that will make you grow beyond what you thought was possible.

“There are gains on every side you look. For sure the goal is to get results on track, without a doubt but to get there you have to acknowledge that small gains on every insignificant areas are important. Paying attention to small details play a huge role to be better then others who may be focusing on the wrong areas. Some drivers get to the end result faster then others but I believe anyone can become really good if you accept the time it need to be put in.”

Martin, also with Cape, was a double winner this weekend. Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography

MST: Who or what got you interested in coaching? How do you stay sharp after doing this for so many years and what are some of the ways you learn as a coach? 

JJ: “I spent 20+ years trying to become a race car driver and it was when life got in the way that I realized I needed to support myself while being happy in the process. It wasn’t a decision I was ready or wanted to make, but it was a decision that was needed. After a lot of soul searching I found that coaching was as close as I could get to the feeling of driving myself and I’m glad I found it.

“I try to put myself in situations that are unorthodox sometimes to get to learn how different people approach different things, the more I learn about different drivers/people in general and their personalities the bigger my spectrum becomes to tap in to different ways to approach my drivers. I sometimes volunteer my time to work with drivers that are either very novice or even work with well rounded pro drivers just to be able to see the way they each navigate during a weekend.

“I would say that the more I immerse myself in to different environments the more I feel like I can help anyone. Every once in a while I will do a race hear and there just for fun and with no pressure and that helps me realize and transmit  to the drivers that this hole thing is supposed to be fun and enjoyable. Sure it’s a job sometimes and you have pressure from sponsors and the pressure you put on your self for no reason really without even realizing it. If it’s not enjoyable, why do it!?”

NHRA: John Force Racing won its 2,500th Funny Car round at Gainesville

Front, from left: Co-crew chiefs Jason McCulloch and Jon Schaffer, John Force, crew chief Mike Neff. (Photo Credit: Gary Nastase and Auto Imagery)
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It wasn’t just a career-best elapsed time run and a final round victory for John Force at last week’s NHRA Gatornationals and Gainesville. It was also the John Force Racing team’s 2,500th Funny Car round win, as well.

The full release is below:

John Force’s Funny Car victory Sunday in the NHRA Gatornationals in Gainesville, Fla., was memorable for many reasons, including yet another milestone over the team’s 40-year existence in the NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series.

After winning all four rounds, and coupled with Robert Hight’s first-round victory, the team achieved the 2,500-round victory threshold for Funny Cars. Force’s final-round win over rookie Jonnie Lindberg sealed the deal.

JFR’s first round victory was June 1, 1979, when Force defeated Tom McEwen at the Cajun Nationals in Baton Rouge, La. Force himself has accounted for just over half of those 2,500 Funny Car round victories, as he now stands at 1,269, with six round wins this season. He defeated Del Worsham, Jack Beckman, and Tommy Johnson Jr. before beating Lindberg on Sunday.

Even more impressive is that JFR’s 2,500 NHRA Funny Car round wins account for more than 20 percent of wins all-time in the class.

“It was the reign of terror that started it all, with Austin Coil, Bernie Fedderly and John Medlen,” Force said. “It was really about a group of guys – it wasn’t about me. I just wrote the checks, but I got to drive one of the baddest hot rods on the planet. We won just about everything.

“But those days are gone now. John Force wants to stay in the game, and now we’ve got Robert Hight, my daughter Courtney, young Austin Prock is coming,” he continued. “I’m really excited about this. We put the band back together. Mick Jagger of the Rolling Stones said life’s a drag, but today, life’s not a drag – it’s a drag race, and we won.”

Winning races and elimination rounds is one of the things John Force has done best. Overall, nine drivers have won Funny Car rounds with JFR. The total includes:

  • John Force 1,269
  • Robert Hight 375
  • Tony Pedregon 292
  • Courtney Force 134
  • Mike Neff 118
  • Gary Densham 108
  • Ashley Force Hood 105
  • Eric Medlen 95
  • Phil Burkart Jr. 4

Hight added to his total Sunday, besting Bob Tasca III in the first round with career-bests in time and speed, and has two round wins this season. Courtney Force won her first three rounds of the season at Pomona, making it to the final round.

“It’s amazing, but what’s really amazing is when you look at who has most of those wins,” Hight said. “John Force’s records – he’s so far out in front of everybody else – it’s not even achievable. With the competition level and everything else there is today, these records we keep getting will never, ever be broken. I was lucky enough to get the 200th victory for John Force Racing at Topeka (2011), and that was pretty exciting.”

To do it at Gainesville, Hight said, was special. In the 1990s, for example, Force participated in 37 rounds out of a possible 40, and won 33 of those 40 rounds. He just kept winning … and winning … and winning.

“He’s had good luck at Gainesville,” Hight said. “But I take away from this that all three of our Funny Cars are running good, and we’re not searching for faster cars but right where we want to be. We just need to get a little consistency. I’m just happy to be a little part of those 2,500 round wins. We have three good cars now, and we’re going to get a lot more wins.”

The milestone is more than just a number. It represents tireless efforts by drivers, crew chiefs, team members, fabricators, shop workers, and office staff who have worked with Force since the 1970s.

“If you look at the Tony Pedregons that drove for me, the Eric Medlens, the Gary Denshams, Robert Hight, my girls – if you go down that list, they were all part of that. It wasn’t just about me,” Force said. “I’ve done well in the sport, because I’ve lived it and loved it. I give 110 percent to my sponsors, never 100 percent. We overdeliver, you have to.

“With the cast of characters we have, we’re going to keep hitting them with all we’ve got.”

The team earned its 2,500th round victory across all NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series classes last year. Including the team’s Top Fuel dragster – piloted by Brittany Force and sponsored by Monster Energy – the team’s round victory total stands at 2,593. Brittany Force added another Top Fuel round victory Sunday, and stands at 93 in her career.

The fourth round of the NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series, the NHRA Nationals, is March 31-April 2 at The Strip at Las Vegas Motor Speedway in Nevada. John Force Racing has won five races at the spring race in Las Vegas, most recently with John Force running the table in 2015.

F1 on NBC crew previews the upcoming 2017 season

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It’s a new season of Formula 1 that kicks off this weekend with the Australian Grand Prix. All times and streaming details for the new year can be found here, to be watched on NBCSN and the NBC Sports App.

As NBC Sports Group prepares for its fifth season of coverage, all of the broadcast team have made various rounds previewing the season to come (here’s a link to the group’s upcoming live theater presentation at Sellersville Theater next week).

Lead lap-by-lap announcer and host Leigh Diffey spoke to Autoweek in a Q&A, linked here. A quick take on the excitement of the new season is below:

“These cars are faster, will be harder to control in the corners, and will place a high physical demand on the drivers. I can’t wait to see what these cars do these drivers after 58 laps around Albert Park. That’s how I would sell fans on what we’re going to see this season,” Diffey said.

Analysts Steve Matchett and David Hobbs have also previewed the seasons, with both their interviews linked below.

Matchett’s interview with Todd McCandless for Formula1Blog.com is linked here. Hobbs’ interview with Steve Zautke on 105.7 FM The Fan’s (WSSP-Milwaukee) The Final Inspection Show is linked here.

F1 on NBC pit reporter and insider Will Buxton checks in with The Marshall Pruett Podcast, linked here.

Coverage this weekend begins with a live stream of free practice one airing at 9 p.m. ET on Thursday night via the NBC Sports App, which will air at midnight on Friday on NBCSN leading straight into live coverage of free practice two at 1 a.m. ET on NBCSN. The full time breakdown is below.

Hinchcliffe’s DTM test with Mercedes an ‘amazing blast of a lifetime’

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The second half of the James Hinchcliffe and Robert Wickens “ride swap” took place last week at the Vallelunga circuit in Italy, as Hinchcliffe stepped aboard Wickens’ usual No. 6 HWA AG Mercedes-AMG C63 DTM car for his first few laps in the tin-top beast.

After shaking off a tough end to what had been a dynamic weekend for both himself and the No. 5 Arrow Electronics Schmidt Peterson Motorsports Honda team at the Verizon IndyCar Series’ season opener in St. Petersburg – he’d led early but was caught out on a yellow flag timing and dropped back – Hinchcliffe arrived in Italy on Wednesday to prepare for his run in the DTM car. Wickens tested Hinchcliffe’s IndyCar prior to the St. Petersburg season opener.

The ordinary challenges of getting acclimated to a new car – getting a seat made and adapting to the different driving position – were erased because of a quick and easy fit right into Gary Paffett’s seat.

“It’s funny when we saw the three-week gap between St. Petersburg and Long Beach we thought there’d be down time, and that clearly hasn’t been the case,” Hinchcliffe laughed when speaking to NBC Sports.

“I flew over to arrive a day early, meet the team, and get the lay of the land for the following day. Luckily I fit right into Gary Paffett’s seat. There were very few adjustments needed and it was pretty straightforward. It led into an amazing blast of a time the following day, to rip around Vallelunga.”

The two-hour session that followed saw Hinchcliffe learn a lot, in what is a rare opportunity for North American drivers to have a chance to race in a DTM car.

Hinchcliffe has had some closed-top car experience, but limited outings in either Mazda’s previous Lola Multimatic chassis or Mazda RT24-P prototypes and the Mazda RX-8 aren’t quite comparable to what he saw in the Mercedes.

“Yeah I’d done the RX-8 back in ’12 and the prototype off and on, so it was a very different feel,” he explained. “The seating position is very unique, sitting back in the center. The visuals are very different. Very wide. I think I missed most apexes in right-hand turns the first couple laps, getting used to it.”

But with Wickens as his de facto engineer and driving coach, Hinchcliffe quickly got the hang of it for what would be an intense couple hours.

He’d have a mix of running qualifying simulations, long runs to see how the tires degrade and just general pushing once he got the hang of it. Hinchcliffe being a professional race car driver, it didn’t take long.

“They’ve done such a good job here; you there’s a lot of money spent to make the car magic, and that’s what they’ve done,” Hinchcliffe said. “The tires were very different. We had tire warmers, then did quali sims, did a long run and saw what the (tire) deg could be like. For only two hours of running, it was a pretty nice test.”

“We wanted each other to have a blast,” he added of Wickens’ input and advice. “At Sebring, I gave him some pointers, and we did a track lap in the rental cars. He did the same thing here.

“He’d just been there testing. He did a baseline run in the morning to dial the car in. He was great. He was my engineer for the test, to be honest. He’d pull out the laptop and show data comparisons; look for what to do different and better. It was a lot of fun.”

Hinchcliffe had always tried to keep DTM on his radar from afar, watching the races he could while trying to get to at least one per year. The same goes the other way for Wickens, who tries to make it to at least one IndyCar race per year too, and fully enjoyed his own day in Hinchcliffe’s car.

“When it got announced, I had a bunch of guys say they’d had a chance to test a DTM car. I understand now why it’s one of the most fun series,” he said.

“I’ve followed it more closely with Robbie driving. Having had a taste of the machinery, now you get it even more.”

Formula 1 2017 team preview: Sauber

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Rounding out MotorSportsTalk’s team-by-team preview ahead of the new Formula 1 season, we look at Sauber, the minnow team which bounced back from years of instability to find some strength in 2016.

The arrival of new owners Longbow Finance gave Sauber the chance to rebuild and recruit after a number of losses in the preceding years, while Felipe Nasr’s charge to ninth in Brazil offered a boost in prize money as the team jumped above Manor to P10 in the constructors’ championship.

Sauber now heads into 2017 looking to continue its recent gains, with the new faces at Hinwil eager to make an impact. The goal is now to thrive, not survive.

DRIVERS

9. Marcus Ericsson (Sweden)
94. Pascal Wehrlein (Germany)

CAR

Sauber C36

ENGINE

Ferrari 061

TEAM CHIEFS

Monisha Kaltenborn (CEO/team principal)
Jörg Zander (technical director)

MONTMELO, SPAIN – MARCH 08: Pascal Wehrlein of Germany driving the (94) Sauber F1 Team Sauber C36 Ferrari on track during day two of Formula One winter testing at Circuit de Catalunya on March 8, 2017 in Montmelo, Spain. (Photo by Dan Istitene/Getty Images)

What went right in 2016: Sauber may have only scored two points, but it both survived the year and was able to secure some much-needed financial backing that kept the team in business. The on-track performances were what we’d expect from a backmarker team, filled with a number of highlights. Marcus Ericsson’s performances through the year were of particular note in the latter half of the season, despite the Swede going under the radar.

What went wrong in 2016: Sauber’s struggles still left its drivers unable to compete on-track, particularly in the run-up to the takeover when updates for the car were hard to find. Sauber failed to get anywhere near the midfield runners in the dry, but again, it perhaps could not have been expected to given the circumstances.

What’s changed for 2017: A number of new faces are at Sauber following an extensive recruitment process. Ex-Audi LMP1 technical chief Jörg Zander has joined the team, while former Haas strategist Ruth Buscombe arrived last fall and is a big, big asset on the pit wall. Pascal Wehrlein has also been signed from Manor, replacing Nasr after his backing fell through, but the team will be racing with the 2016-spec Ferrari power unit. That won’t help come the end of the year.

What they’ll look to accomplish in 2017: In all honesty, it’s hard to see Sauber finishing anywhere but last this year. The rest of the field simply has resources that are too deep to give the Swiss team much chance. Early gains can be made in the first few races when the impact of a year-old power unit will be felt less; some points would be good. But really, this is again a year to battle on and continue to fight for a better future.

MONTMELO, SPAIN – FEBRUARY 27: Marcus Ericsson of Sweden driving the (9) Sauber F1 Team Sauber C36 Ferrari on track during day one of Formula One winter testing at Circuit de Catalunya on February 27, 2017 in Montmelo, Spain. (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)

MST PREDICTIONS

Luke Smith: Sauber can’t really expect much this year. It’s great that the team is on its feet again, and some of the personnel it has on board gives it strength. But the rest of the pack can simply outspend it. The only team it can get close to this year is Haas, I think, and that’s only if the American team gets things seriously wrong this year. P10 in the constructors’ championship with a couple of points – let’s say picked up by Ericsson early in the year – is the ceiling for Sauber.

Tony DiZinno: It’s hard to think of Sauber as the underdog and last team because they’ve been here 25 years, their reputation is of overachieving and they’ve given so many young drivers their start. Yet with Manor’s absence, it’s Sauber that enters as the 10th place team from 2016, but determined to advance from that this season. Marcus Ericsson has become that dependable, career midfielder as the Swede looks to his fourth season. More pressure is on Pascal Wehrlein, the Mercedes junior passed over by his manufacturer to replace Nico Rosberg and by Force India to replace Nico Hulkenberg. Ericsson may not be as easy a target to beat as Wehrlein might think. A couple points finishes should occur for this team and if they can get to eighth or ninth in the constructor’s points, it’ll have been a much better year.

Kyle Lavigne: With a year-old Ferrari power unit, Sauber should have strong reliability. Whether or not the car has the pace to bring them up the grid is another matter. They languished near the bottom of the time sheets on multiple days of testing, but they didn’t seem to experience reliability problems. That trait could prove very beneficial. As hard as it is to believe, McLaren is likely their closest rival as 2017 begins. And, with McLaren struggling with a car that is both slow and unreliable, Sauber has a chance to leapfrog them, so long as their car keeps going.