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 Then following Magnussen’s crash in practice, that car was withdrawn from Le Mans before it even had the chance to complete the triple.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.

VIDEO: Celebrating Mexico’s motorsport culture and racing history

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Since returning to the Formula 1 calendar in 2015, the Mexican Grand Prix has already established itself as one of the sport’s most exciting and vibrant races, with hundreds of thousands of fans flocking to the Autodromo Hermanos Rodriguez in Mexico City.

In order to get a flavor of Mexico’s rich racing heritage, NBCSN pit reporter Will Buxton took time out of his summer break to explore Mexico City and also take part in the famous Carrera Panamericana road race.

The Carrea Panamericana is Mexico’s equivalent of the Mille Miglia, initially acting as a border-to-border sportscar event before being cancelled in 1955.

The race was revived in the 1980s, and continues to this day, offering drivers a gruelling, week-long challenge against the clock at high speed on public highways through the mountains of central Mexico.

2017’s Formula 1 race is set to be a poignant one for Mexico following the devastating 7.1 magnitude earthquake that struck earlier this week, claiming the lives of over 200 people.

With the race set to go ahead as planned, it will be an important statement of unity from Mexico when it welcomes F1 at the end of October, the grand prix taking place on October 29 and acting as another chapter in the nation’s steeped motorsport history.

Mexico’s only F1 driver, Sergio Perez, has set up a fund through which donations can be made to help those affected by the earthquake with full details below.

Donations can also be made via PayPal by clicking here.

F1/IndyCar clashes frequent for 2018 as schedules shape up

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The latest meeting of the World Motor Sport Council may not have yielded much in the way of groundbreaking news, but the confirmation of Formula E and the World Endurance Championship’s 2018 schedules did help us get a grip on next year’s racing calendar.

Perhaps the most notable thing with next year’s schedules is the heavy reduction in clashes between the FIA’s three premier track championships – F1, Formula E and WEC – next year, making good on its plans for calendar harmonization moving forward.

WEC confirmed its ‘super season’ schedule earlier this month, stretching 13 months from May 2018 to June 2019, and added Silverstone last week, with the calendar gaining FIA approval in Paris.

Of the 2018 WEC rounds, there is just one clash with another FIA track championship: between the 6 Hours of Fuji and the F1 United States Grand Prix on the October 21 weekend.

While the more pressing worry for drivers is between WEC and Formula E after the July 16 debacle this year, no WEC and F1 clashes is good news for Fernando Alonso, who could well appear at Le Mans next year as part of his Triple Crown bid.

Formula E does have a number of F1 clashes, albeit not until the sixth event of its season, with the Rome race being held on the April 15 weekend where the Bahrain Grand Prix also sits (for now – China is due to swap dates).

Other Formula E and F1 clashes come on April 29 (Paris/Azerbaijan), June 10 (Zurich/Canada) and July 29 (Montreal/Hungary), although by shifting the New York City ePrix back one week to July 14-15, a gap has been found in the schedule.

For those operating across all three series (including yours truly), there is now a busy run between the start of the F1 season in Australia and the start of the summer break in Hungary with just three empty weekends.

As for IndyCar clashes? The condensed nature of the series’ schedule and the expansion of F1’s calendar to 21 races means they are inevitable. That said, as IndyCar is outside of the FIA’s realm of control, it was never really in the mix for its harmonization plans.

Yet again there is a clash between the Indianapolis 500 and the Monaco Grand Prix, sadly something we have become accustomed to in recent years, but over half the IndyCar calendar faces an F1 clash next year. There may be further ones to come when a couple other race dates get announced.

Here’s a full run-down of the F1/IndyCar double dip weekends thus far:

April 7-8: Chinese GP, Phoenix Grand Prix
April 14-15: Bahrain GP, Grand Prix of Long Beach
May 12-13: Spanish GP, Indianapolis GP
May 26-27: Monaco GP, Indianapolis 500
June 9-10: Canadian GP, Texas 600
June 23-24: French GP, Road America GP
July 7-8: British GP, Iowa Corn 300
August 25-26: Belgian GP, Gateway 500
September 15-16: Singapore GP, Sonoma GP

Bahrain, China ‘on-track’ to swap F1 race dates for 2018

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Next year’s Formula 1 races in China and Bahrain are “on-track” to swap dates in order to maximize their local exposure, according to the sport’s commercial chief, Sean Bratches.

The provisional F1 schedule for 2018 lists the Chinese Grand Prix as the second round of the season, taking place on April 8, with the Bahrain Grand Prix taking place one week later on April 15.

However, plans are afoot to swap the races around due to the Qingming national holiday that is set to take place in China on the April 8 weekend, potentially having a negative impact on crowd numbers at the Shanghai International Circuit.

“We’re trying to take into account global events, local events, religious holidays and things to ensure we’re maximizing the opportunity for fans to attend the grands prix,” Bratches told Reuters.

“We’re talking to both of them to that end and if we can reach a mutually agreed upon solution, which appears to be on-track to happen, you’ll probably see that,” he said.

No updates were made to the F1 schedule for 2018 at the latest meeting of the World Motor Sport Council in Paris this week, meaning no switch between Bahrain and China will be ratified until the start of December at the earliest.

NASCAR America: Scott Speed’s quest for Red Bull GRC three-peat

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Red Bull Global Rallycross points leader Scott Speed is going for his third consecutive championship next month (Saturday, October 14, 4:30 p.m. ET, NBC from Los Angeles) for the Volkswagen Andretti Rallycross team.

Prior to that, he joined Thursday’s edition of NBCSN’s NASCAR America, checking in with his former Red Bull Racing teammate Brian Vickers, show host Carolyn Manno and analyst Steve Letarte.

Speed talked teammate dynamics – he and Tanner Foust have been the class of the Red Bull GRC field for several years – and what it takes to succeed in the diverse championship that features racing on both pavement and dirt.

“Tanner comes from more of a more rally background and I come from more of an open-wheel, road course background,” Speed explained. “You have to meet in the middle and often times that creates success. Our personalties are polar opposites and that’s a good thing.”

One other thing Speed addressed was Austin Cindric’s couple notable incidents in the last month or so. Going for his maiden NASCAR Camping World Truck Series win, Cindric hit Kaz Grala at Canadian Tire Motorsport Park to move for the lead and ultimately the win.

Cindric then made his GRC Supercars debut at the most recent weekend in Seattle and the two collided after a miscommunication in a preliminary race, prior to the Joker section of the course.

“He’s a young kid with not a lot of experience. He’s made a couple big mistakes. He came in like a wrecking ball,” Speed laughed.

“I was more mad because the car couldn’t restart at first. But it did, and we got going.”