Photo courtesy of IMSA

Continental Tire rolls into Sebring with several key additions

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This is a big week for Continental Tire as the next round of the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship beckons at Sebring International Raceway.

The manufacturer’s new Prototype class tire debuts for the WeatherTech Championship in the Mobil 1 Twelve Hours of Sebring. Meanwhile, the new-look IMSA Prototype Challenge presented by Mazda series premieres the LMP3 class of competition, which along with the existing Mazda Prototype Lites (the former L1 cars) will also run on Continental Tires.

Add in the fact the company has recently launched the ExtremeContactTM Sport (formally confirmed at Daytona), which was tested and developed by five active IMSA drivers (Joao Barbosa, Ryan Dalziel, Ozz Negri, Lawson Aschenbach, Andy Lally) and what’s already a big week for Continental Tire only gets bigger at Sebring this week.

Tackling these elements one-by-one, let’s look ahead to what figures to be an important week:

THE NEW PROTOTYPE TIRE

The chance to start from square one after three years of the combined Daytona Prototype/old LMP2 platform to a new base 2017 LMP2 chassis with Daytona Prototype international (DPi) car for the Prototype class was a benefit for Continental.

In layman’s terms, this balancing act from a tire standpoint was a tough one before this year. The DPs, heavier and more powerful, could get heat in their tires faster but they’d also go off quicker over the course of a stint. The P2s, lighter and less powerful, would take longer to come up to temperature but could theoretically go longer in a stint.

DP/P2 balance was harder to nail a combined tire. Photo courtesy of IMSA
DP/P2 balance was harder to nail a combined tire. Photo courtesy of IMSA

Now, with a singular Prototype tire, which debuts at Sebring since Daytona requires Continental’s lone run of the Gold branded tire for the year, the task is made easier for Continental to have a platform that brings the tire more into alignment with a single base chassis.

“It’s nice to have one car rather than two diametrically different cars in the past, because the LMP2 and DPi car have a lot of characteristics we like to see,” John DeSalle, president, Hoosier Racing Tire Corporation, told NBC Sports. “With the downforce reasonably light, and with the reasonable amount of horsepower, we specifically do it for that car.

“Because you had the Daytona Prototype and LMP2 cars, they were so different, we had a compromise of a tire. It was designed to withstand the abuse of a DP, but also get sufficient enough performance for P2. Now with one prototype car, the tire has been refined to provide a much higher level of performance longitudinally, to turn and brake at the same time. We’re very happy with tread wear. Daytona is different from the other tracks. One’s Gold (branded), and one’s Black. The Daytona tire is designed to withstand the load of banking. The new tire, you’ll see starting at Sebring.”

The testing process for the new tire began last year, although the task was made a bit more difficult by the fact the new DPis didn’t premiere until the fall before their formal unveils began in November. The stillborn HPD ARX-04b, a 2015-spec LMP2 car which raced only once at the 2015 Rolex 24 at Daytona before the Tequila Patron ESM team parked it for an older HPD and later a Ligier JS P2 chassis, then became available as an unexpected test mule.

“Comprehensively, we didn’t have any DPi cars to test… it wasn’t until Putnam Park (in Indianapolis) on Labor Day Monday when we did our first test with a DPi,” explained Bruce Foss, Business Unit Manager, Circuit Racing Tires, Hoosier Racing Tire Corp.

“But we did the development on the HPD car with Ozz Negri at NOLA, Atlanta. That tire has a 650mm front tire. They converted, so it would accept the new 680 size. We did as much as we could with those cars. But we didn’t want to get off on a tangent, although it wasn’t much different as it worked out.”

By the time the DPis were up and running – the No. 10 Konica Minolta Cadillac DPi-V.R was first out with the new tire in the fall – the new tire clicked almost immediately. Foss explained the rest of the test process, which also included earlier testing at Sebring in late 2016.

“We got aggressive with Wayne Taylor… they did most of the initial testing,” Foss said. “Action Express got their Dallaras. We did some testing with Mazda, Riley Multimatic, but it’s all lined up fine. Oreca did their running at Sebring with Rebellion. There’s just as much learning for the cars, if not more, than there is with the tires. It all goes hand in hand. Those guys know enough about that tire from previous years where they can focus on the car setup. I think when we get to the road course, we’ll see these cars really go fast.”

Recent testing signs were positive of that point. At the late February official IMSA Sebring test, the fastest Cadillac was nearly two seconds quicker on the new tire (1:49.600 by Jordan Taylor) than last year’s pole time, a 1:51.152 by Olivier Pla 2016-spec Ligier JS P2 Honda on the old tire.

Expect times to be quicker than the old pole times as the year goes on, thanks to the concerted efforts of the new prototypes and the new tire.

LMP3’s STATESIDE DEBUT

Photo courtesy of IMSA
Photo courtesy of IMSA

There’s more expected interest in the new IMSA Prototype Challenge presented by Mazda series this year, as the LMP3 chassis (six homologated constructors are Ginetta, Ligier, ADESS AG, Dome, Norma and Riley Technologies) makes its debut alongside the previous generation Mazda-powered Élan DP02 cars. Both classes of cars will run on tires specifically designed by Continental.

Testing took place there again in the fall, also at Sebring. Foss explained how that went according to plan. The base tire for LMP3 in Europe was constructed by Michelin, while the MPC cars used to run on Cooper Tires.

“We accomplished all our goals,” Foss said. :Our target was that we wanted to duplicate the Michelin LMP3 and Cooper on Lites car, and to make the transition pretty seamless for those guys. We ran 200 miles on a set of LMP3 tires, and they didn’t really fall off. It was all good. The Lites tires were very comparable to the Cooper, if not a little better.”

ExtremeContactTM Sport’s LAUNCH AND ACTIVATION

Photo: Continental Tire
Photo: Continental Tire

Taking five different driving styles and preferences to then create a street tire for passengers isn’t something that’s done often. In fact, Continental took a big step forward by entrusting the quintet of IMSA drivers to do just, as one of the first tire manufacturers with which to do so.

But with the five drivers picked, with the combination of fun they had doing it and the input they provided for Continental engineers, Continental couldn’t have been happier with the launch of the ExtremeContactTM Sport.

“We took our knowledge from the track to the street in a whole new way with the ExtremeContactTM Sport,” Travis Roffler, director of marketing for Continental Tire, said at Daytona for the Rolex 24 at Daytona. “We chose five of the best sports car drivers in the world to help deliver the performance driving enthusiasts demand in a tire. These drivers pushed our tires to the limits to help develop a tire that includes superb dry handling while not sacrificing any of Continental’s award-winning performance in the wet. This summer tire is ideal for sports cars and sport and luxury vehicles.”

The drivers, naturally, weighed in as well.

“Usually we look for performance but there’s other aspects that come with developing a street tire,” said Joao Barbosa, who shares the No. 5 Mustang Sampling Racing Cadillac DPi-V.R with Christian Fittipaldi in Prototype.

“There were tires we would have picked that would have been the qualifying tire… they would have had a lot of lawsuits,” joked Ryan Dalziel, who shares the No. 2 Tequila Patron ESM Nissan Onroak DPi with Scott Sharp, also in Prototype.

“I’m grateful to be a part of this… it’s big thanks to Continental for having the trust in us to do this,” added Lawson Aschenbach, who drives the No. 57 Stevenson Motorsports Audi R8 LMS with Andrew Davis in GT Daytona. “We like to go fast and like to destroy tires. I’m so happy with how the tire came out.”

Barbosa and Ozz Negri were quick to thank Andy Lally for his input as well. Negri and Lally are split between the Nos. 86 and 93 Michael Shank Racing Acura NSX GT3s in GTD; Negri co-drives with Jeff Segal and Lally with Katherine Legge.

You can see a video Continental Tire put together of the drivers helping to design the tires, below.

It all adds up to a big week ahead for Continental. And this is before we also note there’s the Continental Tire SportsCar Challenge second round of the season at Sebring, as well.

More races, more friction in the future for F1

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MELBOURNE, Australia (AP) The new owners of Formula One are planning to have more races and a greater presence in North America, and wouldn’t mind revving up the ratings with some extra friction among drivers.

Sean Bratches, the managing director of commercial operations for the Formula One Group – formerly Liberty Media – which took over the running of the sport in January, is already fielding offers from promotors wanting to buy in.

Lewis Hamilton has suggested Miami and Daniel Ricciardo picked Las Vegas as places they’d like to see new races, and Bratches told a news conference Friday that “there’s no dearth of interest in bringing Formula One to circuits, both track and street, around the world.”

Bratches said he’d had a “number of inquiries from cities, states, municipalities and countries around the world that are interested.”

There are 20 races on the 2017 calendar, starting with the Australian Grand Prix on Sunday, and concluding with Abu Dhabi Grand Prix in November. The debate over the number and location of races has been frequent over the last decade.

F1 racing returned in 2012 to the United States, where it is held at the Circuit of the Americas in Austin, Texas, in October. While the bulk of the races remain in Europe and Asia, there are also GPs in Canada, Mexico and Brazil.

“Our interest is in expanding the number of circuits in that marketplace, leveraging Austin – our incumbent and the benchmark in terms of what we’re doing in the States,” said Bratches, adding there was clear demand for it in North America. “We’re excited about all markets around the world, but the United States is going to be a focus.”

Three-time world champion Lewis Hamilton and Ricciardo, an Australian who finished third on the season standings last year, are among the drivers who’d like to see more than 20 races in the F1 series. Veteran Fernando Alonso also doesn’t mind the idea of expansion, although maybe not for a few years.

Ferrari driver Sebastian Vettel, who has won four world drivers’ titles, thinks 16 to 20 would be enough. All agreed that expansion was pointless unless it increases the level of competition. Hamilton and Mercedes dominated the last three seasons, and Red Bull was dominant for the four seasons before that.

There’s always been driver tension in F1, usually between teams but also involving teammates vying for championships. Hamilton and Nico Rosberg, who edged Hamilton for the title last year and then retired, had an openly strained rivalry at Mercedes since 2013.

That’s something former ESPN executive Bratches doesn’t mind.

Responding to a question about the drivers being overly-managed by public relations people, Bratches said: “There’s a number of sports where there’s big personalities that allow sports to punch above their respective pay grades.”

He said the drivers were a big part of the fan engagement.

“Candidly, I would love it if more of the drivers had big personalities, there was more controversy among the drivers – and you kind of unleash them a little bit,” he said. “I think that’s good for all of us.”

Jolyon Palmer on the back foot in Australia after F1 practice crash

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Renault’s Jolyon Palmer has admitted that he is “on the back foot” heading into the remainder of this weekend’s Australian Grand Prix after completing just 10 laps in Friday’s Formula 1 practice sessions.

F1 sophomore Palmer arrived in Australia looking to impress after enjoying a bold drive on debut at Albert Park 12 months ago, narrowly missing out on a points finish.

The Briton was the first driver to fall victim of F1’s more challenging cars in an official 2017 race weekend session, losing control through the final corner and slamming into the wall to bring his FP2 running to an early end.

This followed a problem earlier in the day that had limited his FP1 mileage, leaving Palmer with just 10 laps to his name from three hours of Friday running.

“Sadly it was a pretty short day for me in terms of time in the car. We had a minor technical issue in the first session then I had an off in FP2, which unlike FP1 required more than one part replacing,” Palmer explained.

“I’m not sure exactly what happened and we’ll be having a close look at the data. I feel for my crew as they have a decent amount of work to do.

“I’m hopeful of more track time tomorrow, but we’ll be on the back foot heading into qualifying after only 10 laps today.”

Qualifying for the Australian Grand Prix is live on NBCSN and the NBC Sports App from 2am ET on Saturday morning.

Indy 500 champ Rossi takes his shot with the Blackhawks (PHOTOS)

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There are many cool things you get to do after winning the Indianapolis 500. Visiting the grounds of one of the NHL’s most successful, Stanley Cup-winning teams is one of them.

Andretti-Herta Autosport’s Alexander Rossi visited Chicago this week to meet up with the Chicago Blackhawks, trading in his usual No. 98 NAPA Auto Parts Honda for a No. 98 jersey.

Usually it’s the ‘Hawks that are one of the top teams in the NHL and a usual Stanley Cup trophy winner – they’ve won in 2013 and 2015, recently – but it’s the Cubs that right now host a championship trophy having won the World Series for the first time in 108 years.

Anyway, here’s a few photos and videos from Rossi’s trip to Chitown, which also included his own chance to shoot a puck.

Rossi took a photo with iconic Blackhawks singer Jim Cornelison:

Here’s Rossi with Marian Hossa:

Here’s a quick photo before practicing, then video of Rossi practicing:

Rossi paid a visit to WGN Radio:

And all told, Rossi was a fan:

FIA WEC reveals restructured TV commentary team

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One of Audi’s flagship drivers, Allan McNish and veteran TV hosts Martin Haven and Toby Moody join Louise Beckett and Graham Goodwin as part of the restructured television commentary team for the FIA World Endurance Championship, ahead of its 2017 season.

McNish retired from active driving at the end of the 2013 season and the two-time Le Mans winner and 2013 WEC LMP1 champion with Tom Kristensen and Loic Duval has remained an ambassador for Audi in the years since. He’ll be at six of the eight WEC rounds this season (Le Mans considered separately, although under the WEC umbrella).

Moody has been a familiar voice for his bike coverage and in the U.S., for Red Bull Global Rallycross broadcasts on NBC Sports. He’ll be on for the 6 Hours of Silverstone, the 6 Hours of Nürburgring and the 6 Hours of Bahrain.

Haven is well known to sports car fans and will be on for the 6 Hours of Spa-Francorchamps, 6 Hours of Mexico, 6 Hours of COTA, 6 Hours of Fuji and 6 Hours of Shanghai.

Beckett continues in the pits and paddock with DailySportscar editor Goodwin also back as part of the team; he’s been the lead analyst alongside John Hindhaugh the last couple years.

Hindhaugh won’t be on the TV side, instead having announced earlier this week on his own he’d be focusing on Radio Show Limited’s audio productions for WEC shows. Le Mans is treated as a separate entity from a broadcast and production side compared to the rest of the WEC season.

Renowned for his radio calls, Hindhaugh will be in his true area of passion throughout this season, as he also is Stateside for IMSA Radio’s coverage of IMSA championships. RSL has also recently announced it will broadcast VLN coverage this season (more here via DailySportscar).

“Thankfully the busy endurance racing schedule has only a couple of clashes so that means that for most of the WEC events I will be joining the established team providing live commentary for RSL radio,” Hindhaugh said in a release.

“For the WEC events I’m covering for the RSL radio service, we’ll be adding live audio coverage of qualifying to the regular full race broadcast.”

In the WEC release, series CEO Gerard Neveu thanked Hindhaugh for what he’s brought to the TV side the last couple years while also looking forward to the new arrivals to this year’s broadcast team.

“We believe that one of the reasons for the WEC’s current success in today’s motorsport world is that we try not to rest on our laurels; we are always looking to innovate and re-energize the championship in every area.

“John Hindhaugh, who has been our lead commentator until now, has decided to return to his first love of radio commentary, and we want to thank him for the great job he has done, and for his contribution to the championship. We are sure we will have an opportunity to work together again in the future but, for this year, we are very enthusiastic about our new broadcast team and the season ahead.”

The WEC season kicks off with the Prologue test next week in Monza before the season itself starts April 16 at Silverstone.