Photo courtesy of IMSA

Ford GT goes for the endurance race ‘triple sweep’ in Sebring

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SEBRING, Fla. – A year ago, Ford Chip Ganassi Racing and its pair of Ford GTs merely looked for reliability in the Mobil 1 Twelve Hours of Sebring after a nightmare debut at the Rolex 24 at Daytona when issues that hadn’t arisen during preseason testing all popped during the race itself.

A year later, the team, and the car, stands on the precipice of winning endurance racing’s “triple crown” of major endurance races all in a row.

Ford dominated the 24 Hours of Le Mans with Joey Hand, Dirk Mueller and Sebastien Bourdais emerging as the trio that delivered Ford a win 50 years after their famous 1-2-3 victory in the 1966 race, a goal that Ford outlined that it wanted to complete.

Then at this year’s Rolex 24 at Daytona, Ford won again, but this time in a dogfight against three of the other four manufacturers entered in the field. All of Chevrolet with the venerable Corvette C7.R in its fourth season, the emerging No. 62 Risi Competizione Ferrari 488 GTE in its second, and the new mid-engined Porsche 911 RSR on its race debut, put up a threat to the Fords, but the Blue Oval emerged with its second win in a row, and with the same trio of Hand, Mueller and Bourdais. Mueller’s pass of James Calado in the Ferrari into Turn 1 in the final half hour was the ultimate pass for the win, and Mueller held on against Patrick Pilet’s Porsche to the flag.

This driving trio has a chance to become the first trio in major endurance sports car racing history to be the same three drivers to hold those three race titles at the same time, even though Ford would not be the first manufacturer to complete the endurance race triple at the same time.

In fact, Corvette Racing pulled off the feat with five consecutive major endurance race wins in 2015 and 2016. Corvette won Daytona and Sebring with the trio of Jan Magnussen, Antonio Garcia and Ryan Briscoe – incidentally, the last of whom drives for Ford now. Then following Magnussen’s crash in practice, that car was withdrawn from Le Mans before it even had the chance to complete the triple. But Oliver Gavin, Tommy Milner and Jordan Taylor scored an emotional win at Le Mans with the sole remaining Corvette left.

Corvette then won at last year’s Daytona and Sebring with Gavin, Milner and Marcel Fassler. Gavin’s win in a photo finish over Garcia at the 2016 Rolex 24 will live in sports car racing lore. But Ford’s dominance at Le Mans stopped the Corvette win streak in its tracks.

It’s with that setup that Ford, with partners Chip Ganassi Racing, Multimatic and Roush-Yates Engines, can now match Corvette in holding the Le Mans, Daytona and Sebring titles all at once. Ford looks to win 50 years after Mario Andretti won here in 1967. And Ford has three cars with which to do it.

No. 67 Ford GT. Photo: Ford Performance

Hand, Mueller and Bourdais are going for their own hat trick as well. Briscoe, Richard Westbrook and Scott Dixon will look to stop them in their tracks in the No. 67 Ford, which qualified on pole position. Then a third Ford, the UK-based No. 68 car for Olivier Pla, Stefan Muecke and Billy Johnson, will look to play spoiler from a bit further back in the grid.

“The journalists have told us it’s a ‘triple sweep,’ but we can’t think about that,” Ganassi managing director Mike Hull told NBC Sports. “We’re just doing our job at Chip Ganassi Racing.

“Working for Chip over the years, having Ford, Multimatic, Roush-Yates and Michelin have provided us the opportunity to do this the right way. I can’t tell you how much fun that is to do. I love the history of Sebring. From a historical significance, and being a fan of Sebring, a fan of racing, it’s just an honor to be part of and terrific opportunity for us.”

The funny thing is, if Corvette stops them, Corvette will have completed its own hat trick, with a third straight win at Sebring.

Mike O’Gara, Joey Hand, Sebastien Bourdais, Dirk Mueller, Mike Hull. Photo: Tony DiZinno

All three of Hand, Mueller and Bourdais have won at Sebring before, with the first two having had class wins and Bourdais being part of the overall winning lineup in 2015. They downplay the history aspect and instead are more keen to look on the mantra established by team boss Ganassi of his liking winning when it comes down to today’s race.

“We always want to win every race. It doesn’t change,” Hand told NBC Sports. “I was excited to make history at Le Mans. Excited to win Daytona. And to get in the history books again would be awesome. I love the fact my kids will get to read a book about what we’ve done.

“But of course we want to do it. Dirk and I have won a couple times, and been close others. The team is good here. Compared to last year, we have a much better shot. I feel pretty good about it.”

Bourdais, who only races with Ford in the endurance races and has a shot at his own Florida triple crown as well as being a part of Ford’s, downplayed how important his own role has been to the success.

“I don’t race for stats… but obviously you look back, and these big events mean a bit more than the others,” Bourdais told NBC Sports. “I only get to do the big ones so it makes it easier! It’s a great honor to be racing the works car and have the chance to contend for wins.”

Mueller got the car into this position to begin with, following his pass for the win at Daytona on Calado in the waning stages. That was after he’d won the pole at Le Mans, then started and finished the race.

“Sometimes to the outside it looks like it’s just someone is sticking out, when it’s about the team,” Mueller told NBC Sports. “It’s who gets tires. Who’s in traffic. Then who does the start. That’s what I liked about Le Mans. I was lucky to do the pole on my last lap. It was cool. I started and closed the race, and when I got it all and that’s not usually the case!

“(At Daytona), Joey did fantastic in the beginning. Seb and everyone did a great job to keep on track. Then you had everyone who has to finish. It was good fun.”

Hand’s 2012 heroics against Olivier Beretta’s Ferrari will live on in memory and the cool Californian expects a similar ending today, even if the Corvette is known to be very good in cooler evening conditions.

“This track and race is a case where I’m pretty much expecting a dogfight at the end,” said Hand.

But it’s Briscoe, who won the pole on Friday in the No. 67 car, that had perhaps the funniest line about his colleagues in the No. 66 car going for the triple.

“Those guys don’t need to win ‘em all,” Briscoe laughed.

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.