Photo courtesy of IMSA

2017 Sebring 12 thoughts, musings, observations

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Some final thoughts following this year’s 65th running of the Mobil 1 Twelve Hours of Sebring are below:

  • In terms of Cadillac’s dominance, don’t hate them for getting the car sorted this well, right out of the box. Despite IMSA’s pre-Sebring Balance of Performance adjustments, the Cadillacs only seemed to get better in the race, having been closer to the other DPis and LMP2-spec cars in practice and qualifying sessions. Getting through 36 hours at Daytona and Sebring with no major mechanical issues, and missing only two laps total at Sebring in a podium sweep, speaks to the incredible preparation that the car had to withstand the treacherous nature of the track. Said Ricky Taylor, who shared the No. 10 Konica Minolta Cadillac DPi-V.R: “This car is unbelievable. I’ve never had a car that felt as good at the end as it felt on Lap 1. It was super strong, and solid; our’s just ran and ran. I hope (IMSA) doesn’t base BoP on reliability!”
  • By contrast, reliability at the car shredder of a track hit nearly the rest of the Prototype class field. Between starter issues, throttle issues, brake issues and other mechanical gremlins, seven of the 11 cars in class encountered some kind of problems during this race. Mazda scored its first top-five finish in class of the year with its new Mazda RT24-P, but 29th place overall, 29 laps behind the overall winner. Daytona saw the new cars more reliable than Sebring, which lived up to its brutal reputation on Saturday.
  • Great run for the JDC-Miller Oreca 07. Photo courtesy of IMSA

    A sincere shoutout has to go to the privateer JDC-Miller Motorsports team, John Church’s operation having scored surprise fifth and fourth-place finishes in the two endurance races with a pro-am driver lineup in its “banana boat” No. 85 Oreca 07 Gibson. I’m not sure the sports car world fully appreciates the level of preparation Church’s team had within the open-wheel ranks where they won titles in the Mazda Road to Indy. Now having shifted exclusively to sports cars, running six total cars at Sebring this weekend (one WeatherTech LMP2, one Continental Tire ST BMW 228i, two Ligier JS P3s and two Elan DP02s in IMSA Prototype Challenge), the JDC-Miller team of Stephen Simpson, Misha Goikhberg and Chris Miller ran flawlessly and was unlucky not to score an overall podium finish, having lost the pace over the length of a 12-hour race to the Cadillacs. Miller’s early stint, when he ran within a few tenths of past Audi factory driver Filipe Albuquerque in the No. 5 Mustang Sampling Racing Cadillac, was particularly special.

  • French, O’Ward, Masson and O’Neill. Photo courtesy of IMSA

    Similarly, I’m not sure how much people will appreciate Performance Tech Motorsports‘ effort to finish P5 overall, 10 laps off the overall lead, after a second consecutive flawless run from its trio of young guns, James French, Pato O’Ward and Kyle Masson, and the crew wrenching on the No. 38 Oreca FLM09 for the Brent O’Neill-led team. Performance Tech has been unlucky to have not won races in the past in the Prototype Challenge class the last few years but has made up for it in a big way these first two races. In a class which has been under the microscope for a lot of the wrong reasons in recent years, seeing what the Deerfield Beach, Fla.-based team has done has been a feel-good story that speaks to the true blood of sports car racing – a small team that puts everything together well and executes.

  • On a similar note, the Prototype Challenge class as a whole had a great day. Only six cautions in the race was a testament to the overall quality of driving in all four classes, and none of them came from a PC car. This was impressive given the heavily pro-am nature of PC, where there’s a lot of inexperience and ride buying going around to make up the seats. We touched on Performance Tech above, but Starworks Motorsport’s trio of Garett Grist, Max Hanratty and Sean Rayhall were only confirmed on Thursday and Mazda Road to Indy veterans Grist and Hanratty were making their Sebring 12-hour debuts. They finished sixth overall. BAR1 Motorsports’ lineups featured more gentlemen drivers but the pros took their shots when they had the opportunity, Gustavo Yacaman notably having done well to edge French for class pole. The maligned class has taken its licks in the past, but credit should be offered when it’s justified; at Sebring, it was.
  • Corvette and Ford head to the sunset. Photo courtesy of IMSA

    An air of shock came over the room when Corvette beat Ford for the GT Le Mans honors. It wasn’t supposed to happen. With Corvette down to one car and Ford still with all three of its GTs in the mix, how Corvette overcame a clear pace deficit came down to Antonio Garcia’s determination and the strategy and pit work from the Dan Binks-led No. 3 crew. It’s rare in sports car racing that the newest technology doesn’t rise to the top while the older cars fade; the Ford GT, in its second year and the new mid-engined Porsche 911 RSR in its second race had the measure of Corvette’s four-year old C7.R on pace. But that’s why you run the race, isn’t it? Corvette made up for its weakness in one area and overcame for a surprise, popular victory.

  • The BMW Team RLL team is a race and championship-winning program but its run with the M6 GTLM has been very tough lately. Even at Sebring, the car’s best finish of sixth in class, still on the lead lap, saw it more than one minute back of the winning Corvette (1:18), 20 seconds back of the third Ford in fifth, and nearly a minute behind the second Ford in fourth. This was a car that finished second at Sebring last year in its second race, and the GT3-spec M6 also finished second in its class. It’s been since September 2016, at Circuit of The Americas, that a BMW M6 GTLM has come in the top-five in the GTLM class (it’s only four races ago, but feels longer) and it’s been since August 2016, at Road America where it last stood on the podium.
  • Sun set on Lamborghini’s podium hopes. Photo courtesy of IMSA

    Meanwhile the deflation of disappointment came over Lamborghini, which lost its first endurance race podium in the final five minutes. Fuel miscalculations left both the No. 16 Change Racing and No. 11 GRT Grasser Race Team Lamborghini Huracán GT3s short in the last couple laps, ending what had been otherwise sterling efforts from both programs. Change Racing’s trio of Corey Lewis, Jeroen Mul and Brett Sandberg deserved their first top-three finish, Lewis and Mul having done the lion’s share of the driving before Mul’s car ground to a halt just a lap shy of the flag, leaving the new chassis an unrepresentative 11th place in class. As in Daytona, it was the No. 48 Paul Miller Racing Lamborghini Huracán GT3 that ended best of the brand, in fifth place.

  • While the Mercedes-AMG GT3 showed what it could do this weekend – Tristan Vautier’s speed in qualifying and the race did not go unnoticed in his No. 75 car, nor did the overall pace of the No. 33 car that won – it was a tougher second race for the Acura NSX GT3 and Lexus RC F GT3, respectively. The Acuras suffered a heavy lack of top-end speed and rallied to finish eighth and 14th in class, the latter after losing time to a shock failure, while the pair of Lexus entries (Lexi?) started fourth and fifth in class and ended 13th and 18th. New cars generally have a few months to get sorted and begin to hit their stride at midseason. And if Balance of Performance tweaks arrive, these cars may also find themselves dicing within the front part of the WeatherTech field.
  • How much does no rain, no red flags and only six full-course cautions help the overall lap count? Last year’s winning car, the No. 2 Ligier JS P2 Honda from Tequila Patron ESM, completed only 238 laps at Sebring. This year, the Taylor Cadillac ran 348 laps – or more than 400 more miles of the 3.74-mile circuit.
  • The Continental Tire SportsCar Challenge race again brought the fireworks in the ST class and the two-hour time window still had enough drama via pit strategy and caution timing. That said, the Balance of Performance there will likely need an adjustment in the GS class before Circuit of The Americas. The CJ Wilson Racing team executed strategy to perfection to get to the lead, but the pair of Porsche Cayman GT4 Clubsports were left for dead after a restart to the full, new GT4 cars, the McLaren 570S GT4 and the Ford Mustang GT4. ST, meanwhile, proves that older cars with small teams building and running them still puts on one helluva show. TCR’s potential integration to the series may produce a similar evolution as the GT4 car-to-GS one has had to start 2017.
  • It will take some getting used to calling the IMSA Prototype Challenge presented by Mazda series that after having back-to-back name changes in 2015 and 2016, respectively, with the LMP3 and MPC class cars mixed in. It was an interesting style of racing and a good first U.S. outing for the LMP3 cars. Even though Indy Lights driver Nico Jamin was new to the LMP3 machinery, the Frenchman produced a jammin’ performance worthy of two rounds of victory donuts…
  • The field of competitors in this year’s Porsche GT3 Cup USA Challenge by Yokohama is also stacked. There’s a solid eight or nine race win/podium contenders at least and two of those who should contend for the title, in two more open-wheel veteran-turned-sports car drivers in Scott Hargrove and Haywood Scholarship recipient Jake Eidson split the two race wins.

After the two endurance races to kick off the year, IMSA heads West for one of its two shortest races of the year, the 100-minute BUBBA burger Sports Car Grand Prix from the streets of Long Beach on April 8. The additional series run next at either Barber Motorsports Park later in April or Circuit of The Americas in early May.

Herta on pole for second Indy Lights race at Road America

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ELKHART LAKE, Wis. – Colton Herta rebounded from a tough Friday dogged by persistent mechanical issues where he was barely on track, and a 13th place start for race one, to take the pole for Sunday’s race two (9 a.m. ET online on IndyCar.com; 11:30 a.m. ET on NBCSN) for the Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires at Road America.

The 17-year-old excelled in the cooler conditions this morning for qualifying in his No. 98 Andretti/Steinbrenner Racing Dallara IL-15 Mazda to post a time of 1:52.0034 for the top spot at the 4.014-mile circuit. He’ll start only 13th for today’s first race.

Freedom 100 winner Matheus Leist, who enjoyed his maiden IndyCar test here last week with Andretti-Herta Autosport, was back in his Carlin car and is second on the grid, just 0.0223 of a second off Herta’s time.

For Sunday, points leader Kyle Kaiser made it three teams in the top three for Juncos Racing, with Zachary Claman De Melo and Santiago Urrutia completing the top five on the grid.

Americans Neil Alberico and Aaron Telitz are sixth and seventh with Nico Jamin in eighth.

Leist’s pole time for today’s first race was 1:53.1760 with qualifying in warmer conditions, set yesterday afternoon.

Leist, Alberico and Ryan Norman will lead the field to green, which comes online today at noon CT and local time, 1 p.m. ET, online at IndyCar.com.

Weekend results are linked here.

Aleshin set to return to action today at Road America

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ELKHART LAKE, Wis. – Mikhail Aleshin is set to return to action today in the No. 7 Lucas Oil SPM Honda ahead of today’s sessions for the Verizon IndyCar Series’ KOHLER Grand Prix at Road America (Sunday, 12:30 p.m. ET, NBCSN).

The Russian driver was delayed by immigration issues in arriving back to the U.S. after racing at the 24 Hours of Le Mans last week with SMP Racing.

Aleshin posted on Friday that he was en route to the U.S. after getting it sorted, and the team confirmed Aleshin’s return on Saturday morning.

Team co-owner Sam Schmidt told the Advance Auto Parts IndyCar Radio Network that Aleshin was en route and was optimistic he’d be back in time for Saturday’s sessions.

Canadian driver Robert Wickens filled in for Wickens on Friday, while facing an abnormal situation where he didn’t know if he’d be able to continue for the rest of the weekend. He posted a best time of 1:44.7085 in Friday’s combined practice, just under 1.9 seconds off Friday pace setter Josef Newgarden.

“I’m really happy with today. Obviously you always want to make as much progress as possible, and you never know if you’ve done enough or if I should achieve more, or whatever the case is,” Wickens said after the day. “The biggest thing for me is the car is still in one piece and I haven’t made a terminal error yet!

“The Schmidt Peterson Motorsports team has done a fantastic job getting me up to speed and making me comfortable. It’s been a strange day because I’m not really sure if I’m doing the next session since I don’t know when Mikhail [Aleshin] is arriving or if he’s arriving. So I’m going to work overnight as if I’m driving tomorrow morning, and if not, then hopefully I can help out the team somehow.”

The third practice session begins at 11 a.m. CT and local time from Road America. Qualifying is today at 3 p.m. CT and local time and airs at 4 p.m. CT/5 p.m. ET on NBCSN.

Renault denies speculation Kubica could enter Monza FP1

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Renault Formula 1 chief Cyril Abiteboul has denied speculation suggesting that Robert Kubica could appear in first practice for the Italian Grand Prix at Monza in September.

Kubica raced in F1 between 2006 and 2010, with his final full-season in the sport being completed with Renault before sustaining severe injuries to his right arm that appeared to end his single-seater career.

After a number of years in rallying, Kubica has recently tested a number of different cars, culminating in an outing in a 2012-spec Lotus F1 at Valencia earlier this month.

The reportedly-impressive test has led to speculation that Kubica could be capable of making a full-time return to F1 in the future, with paddock chatter in Montreal suggesting that an FP1 run-out at Monza was being discussed.

However, Abiteboul was quick to shoot this down during Friday’s FIA press conference, saying that it would not be happening.

“No, absolutely not. I don’t know where this is coming from and I can completely wipe that one out,” Abiteboul said.

“Robert has been a family member of the Enstone team, and Eric on my right knows what I mean. He has been very close and very loyal. The team in Enstone, which is a very small group of people, actually have been very loyal to a number of drivers.

“People feel very loyal and feel they owe something to Robert for making something big in their life and there was this opportunity that we give to him, that we could afford to him to drive again, because it was actually a marketing event that got cancelled, so we had a car available at the track and we offered that opportunity to him.

“Robert is going through some form of program to try to understand what he can do. He has been driving a number of cars, Formula E, GP3, F2, LMP2, you name it, so I think he wants to understand what he can do as part of his sort of rehabilitation program.

“We’ll see. There is nothing else that is planned for the time being, apart from a marketing event at Goodwood, where he will be driving the same car, E20, in front of Lord March’s house.”

Kubica’s links to the Renault seat come at a time when Jolyon Palmer is coming under increasing pressure after a point-less start to the year, leading to suggestions he could be replaced mid-season.

“Our situation is very clear: he has a contract with us,” Abiteboul said of Palmer.

“We are completely committed to helping him get through the period, which is a tough period, that’s obvious.

“He has no ultimatum, but having said that he has to deliver, like every single member of the team.”

Bottas tops final Baku F1 practice ahead of Raikkonen

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Valtteri Bottas closed out Formula 1 practice for the Azerbaijan Grand Prix in Baku at the head of the field after edging out Ferrari rival Kimi Raikkonen in the closing stages of FP3.

Bottas led Mercedes to the top of the classification in final practice with a fastest lap of 1:42.742 to finish 0.095 seconds clear of Raikkonen, the pair having exchanged blows in the final 15 minutes in the battle for P1.

After a mixed Friday, Mercedes appeared more comfortable through final practice as Lewis Hamilton completed the top three, four-tenths down on Bottas’ time.

Ferrari, meanwhile, was left to rely on Raikkonen at the front as drivers’ championship leader Sebastian Vettel suffered a setback.

The German driver was forced to pit with 20 minutes to go due to a problem on his car – an apparent hydraulics issue – prompting his mechanics to set to work quickly in a bid to resolve the problem ahead of qualifying.

After finishing both FP1 and FP2 as the fastest driver, Max Verstappen could not complete a hat-trick in FP3 as he was forced to park up at the side of the track late on, citing a shutdown on his car after reporting an earlier engine issue.

Joylon Palmer was another driver to hit trouble, suffering an engine fire in the early part of the session that meant he had to park up in the run-off area. After crashing out of FP2 on Friday, the already-under pressure Briton will head into qualifying on the back foot, if indeed Renault can fix his car in time.

Back on the timesheets, it was Daniel Ricciardo who followed the top three, taking fourth for Red Bull. Despite his stoppage, Verstappen did enough to take sixth in FP3, trailing Force India’s Esteban Ocon.

Felipe Massa wound up seventh for Williams ahead of Daniil Kvyat and Lance Stroll, while Sergio Perez took P10 overall.

Qualifying for the Azerbaijan Grand Prix is live on CNBC and the NBC Sports app from 9am ET on Saturday, with a re-air at 1pm ET on NBCSN.