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.

Raikkonen grabs Monaco GP pole as Hamilton tanks in Q2

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Kimi Raikkonen will start a Formula 1 race from pole position for the first time in almost nine years on Sunday after topping qualifying for the Monaco Grand Prix.

Raikkonen lasted started a grand prix from pole in France in 2008, but managed to edge out Ferrari teammate Sebastian Vettel at the end of Q3, finishing 0.043 seconds clear in the final stage of Q3.

Raikkonen’s time of 1:12.178 came at the end of a surprising qualifying session that saw two-time Monaco winner and 2017 F1 title contender Lewis Hamilton drop out in Q2, finishing 14th-fastest.

Complaining that he could not get any grip into his tires, Hamilton abandoned his first run in Q2 entirely before pitting.

The Briton was sent out for a second run late on with the chance for three timed laps, the first two of which were compromised. When Hamilton finally found some space to charge, he was greeted by yellow flags for Vandoorne, forcing him to back off, abandon his lap, and be resigned to a lowly P14 finish in qualifying.

Valtteri Bottas was left to lead Mercedes’ charge in Q3, finishing third, just 0.002 seconds behind second-placed Vettel. Red Bull took fourth and fifth on the grid through Max Verstappen and Daniel Ricciardo respectively.

Carlos Sainz Jr. had an impressive run to sixth for Toro Rosso ahead of Sergio Perez, while Haas’ Romain Grosjean made it through to Q3, finishing eighth.

McLaren enjoyed its best qualifying of the season as both Vandoorne and Jenson Button made it through to Q3, but it was not without its troubles. Vandoorne crashed at the end of Q2, forcing a number of drivers to back off on their final lap – including Hamilton – and will drop back three places from P10 due to a penalty overspilling from Spain.

Button charged to ninth on his one-off return to F1, but will fall back to last place for the start on Sunday after receiving a 15-place grid drop due to a power unit issue.

Daniil Kvyat was left 11th for Toro Rosso ahead of Nico Hulkenberg and Kevin Magnussen, with Hamilton following in P14. Felipe Massa rounded out the top 15, having failed to post a quick lap time through the whole of Q2.

Esteban Ocon’s qualifying was something of a rollercoaster as he was eliminated in Q1 after Force India completed a rapid repair job on his VJM10 car following his practice smash. A late lap from Grosjean bumped Ocon down to 16th, dumping him out of qualifying at the first hurdle.

Jolyon Palmer and Lance Stroll’s difficult run of form continued as both dropped out in Q1, finishing 17th and 18th respectively. Palmer’s first run was hindered by a puncture, with the Briton late reporting large amounts of understeer on his car.

Sauber’s practice struggles carried over to qualifying as it propped up the running order in Q1. Pascal Wehrlein finished 19th, while teammate Marcus Ericsson was P20 after clipping the barrier on his final lap, forcing him to park up.

The Monaco Grand Prix is live on NBC from 7:30am ET on Sunday, with F1 Countdown beginning on NBCSN and the NBC Sports app at 7am ET.

Spain points a ‘massive’ morale boost for Sauber after tough start

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Sauber Formula 1 techincal chief Jörg Zander feels that Pascal Wehrlein’s run to eighth place in the Spanish Grand Prix two weeks ago acted as a “massive” morale boost to the team after a tough start to the season.

After years of uncertainty, Sauber’s long-term future was secured last summer when the team was taken over by Longbow Finance, allowing it to go on a recruitment drive and bolster its staffing levels.

The team opted to stick with 2016-spec Ferrari power units for the 2017 season ahead of a new deal with Honda for next year, putting it on the back foot compared to its rivals.

Sauber endured a bumpy start to the year when Wehrlein was injured through the off-season and forced to miss the first two races, as well as struggling to battle for points early in the year when the 2017-spec power units would not be so far ahead.

Wehrlein managed to bounce back in Spain two weeks ago after the team perfected a one-stop strategy to finish eighth, giving the team its best result in two years.

“There was obviously a massive boost for the morale and motivation of the team. We actually didn’t expect us to be there in Barcelona,” Zander said.

“The upgrade package which we planned for Barcelona, we moved to this event. So somehow things seem to have been turned upside down. As you know, we didn’t have Pascal for the first two races, so we had to go with [Antonio] Giovinazzi and, of course, that introduced quite a bit of a change to the operational side.

“So we had a very young, new driver into the car, which we needed to get adapted. But obviously from a development point of view, we do understand that the car is behind, compared to our defined competition, which is the midfield, primarily because we started pretty early in the season to develop that car.

“So we have to try and catch-up. But the parameter we fight here, of course, is time and it’s difficult to gain time over the competition. They have a certain time available as we have, so there’s not any difference.”

Despite finding stability, Sauber is still a significantly smaller operation compared to many of the teams in F1, with Zander appreciating the challenge this creates.

“The thing is, of course, about resources, and these resources, we’re just about to configure and to adapt,” Zander said.

“We have made plenty of recruitments but these are all new people so there is a human factor involved, with regards to getting more out of this operation.

“These are the kind of difficulties that we are fighting at the moment.”

Ferrari has burning ambition to win 1st Monaco GP since 2001

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MONACO (AP) Having closed the gap to dominant Mercedes in an incredibly close-fought Formula One season, Ferrari has another burning ambition: Winning the Monaco Grand Prix on Sunday.

The Italian manufacturer’s barren spell in Monaco dates to Michael Schumacher’s win in 2001, and four-time F1 champion Sebastian Vettel is determined to put that right.

“I would say it is about time that Ferrari wins again here,” said Vettel, who has 44 career wins.

“If you could have the freedom to choose any race on the calendar that you would want to win, it would without doubt be Monaco. Ask up and down the paddock and you would get the same answer.”

Schumacher, who won a record seven world titles and 91 races, also won at Monaco driving for Ferrari in 1997 and ’99.

Vettel’s Monaco win was in 2011, when driving for Red Bull. He was fourth here for Ferrari last year while teammate Kimi Raikkonen did not finish the race. In 2015, the year he joined Ferrari, Vettel was second and Raikkonen was sixth.

Ferrari has stepped up the pace this year and, with increased reliability, is matching Mercedes, which has won the last three drivers’ and constructors’ titles.

After five races, Vettel leads the championship by six points from Mercedes driver Lewis Hamilton; while Mercedes is eight ahead of Ferrari in the constructors’ race.

But Ferrari may be a bit quicker than Mercedes this year, and the increased pressure has forced some uncharacteristic errors.

During the second practice on Thursday, Mercedes made a sloppy mistake when misjudging a tire switch onto the quicker ultra-soft compound. That allowed Ferrari to top the charts in P2, with Vettel fastest and Raikkonen third.

“It is important to start from the front of the grid, here more than anywhere else,” Vettel said. “I am not counting out Mercedes. I am sure they will be back to full force on Saturday (for qualifying).”

Ferrari’s vastly improved reliability suits Vettel perfectly. The German driver is remarkably consistent if the car allows him to be – like it was when he won four straight titles with Red Bull. But he is also quickly irritated when the car lets him down, as it often did last year.

There have been no Vettel tirades over the race radio. He has placed in the top two in all five races, winning in Australia and Bahrain.

“The single-lap pace is very promising,” Vettel said. “The aim is to get faster.”

Vettel’s confidence has definitely returned, along with some of his old panache.

At the Spanish GP two weeks ago, he was being held up by Mercedes driver Valtteri Bottas and could not find a way past. So he tried a move from his karting days; a dummy move from right to left and then swiftly back right again to pass Bottas on the inside.

It is highly unlikely there will be a repeat of that on Sunday, given that the narrow and sinewy Monaco street circuit is arguably the hardest track in F1 to overtake on. Drivers are often brushing the barriers anyway, and this year’s wider cars make that an even more perilous possibility.

“Here you are not entirely the master of your own fate, as many things can happen in a long race,” said Vettel, who has twice been forced to retire during the Monaco GP. “Let’s keep the fingers crossed.”

Esteban Ocon making a name for himself as a rising F1 star

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MONACO (AP) Esteban Ocon is described by one member of his Force India team as a “sponge” because of his capacity to absorb information.

The 20-year-old Frenchman is one of the rising stars of Formula One. Although he has not made the same impact as 19-year-old Max Verstappen – a once-in-a-generation driver – Ocon is making a name for himself with his consistency and some audacious overtaking.

He has scored points in all five races so far, placing a career-best fifth at the Spanish Grand Prix two weeks ago. Prior to that he was seventh in Russia, and overall he sits in eighth place, one spot behind Force India teammate Sergio Perez.

That would be good enough for most drivers early in their careers, but Ocon is in a hurry.

“It is my personal target to get a podium and I want to have it as soon as possible,” Ocon said prior to this weekend’s Monaco GP. “It makes me confident to have a great start like this, progressing all the time, fitting very well into the team. I think we can achieve great things.”

Ocon broke into F1 last year, making his debut for the now defunct Manor team a month before his 20th birthday at the Belgian GP in late August. He has only competed in 14 career races but has managed to make an impression several times.

None more so than at the season-opening Australian GP, where he overtook Fernando Alonso with a passing move down the right that the two-time F1 champion himself would have been proud of. The timing of the attack, where he patiently prodded behind Alonso before swooping around him in a flash, bore the hallmarks of a future great.

“I loved the move against Fernando,” said Ocon, the youngest French driver to score points in F1. “That was pretty solid.”

After getting past Alonso, he then held him off while also repelling an attack from the experienced Nico Hulkenberg. That was only his 10th F1 race, yet he defied two drivers with 400 between them.

Verstappen, the youngest F1 driver to win a race when he clinched the Spanish GP last year, has a similar instinct for overtaking and also possesses the acute concentration and calmness required to properly defend a position under extreme pressure.

That Ocon beat Verstappen to the European Formula 3 title in 2014 – winning it with a round to spare and earning himself a spot on the prestigious Mercedes F1 junior program – hints at untapped potential.

“He’s quick. He proved that in junior categories,” said Daniel Ricciardo, Verstappen’s Red Bull teammate. “You know Esteban got that (F3 title), so he’s obviously talented.”

Moreover, Ocon is incredibly committed to understanding the intricacies of the Force India car, which runs on Mercedes engines.

“I don’t believe too much in the concept of luck. Behind results there is always hard work,” Ocon said. “I always go to the factory between the races to have intense debriefs with my engineers and do simulator work, for hours and hours.”

His propensity for learning astounds senior team members.

“He’s like a sponge and he just absorbs information as fast as you can give it to him. His want and his desire are unquestionable,” said Andrew Green, the team’s technical director. “He absolutely wants this and he has the talent to do great things, but he is going about it the right way. I have no doubts that he is going to get to where he wants to be in a few years’ time.”

Green further describes Ocon’s intuitive understanding of how far he can push the car.

“I watched him for quite a long time in the simulator last week, pounding around the (Monaco circuit), and his car control was incredible,” Green said. “He’s an amazing talent. Can he get a podium? Well, we need to give him the car to do that. But he has an uncanny ability to finish races.”