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.

NHRA: The Strip at Las Vegas expands to become 4-lane dragstrip

Photos courtesy Las Vegas Motor Speedway
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Like a casino player riding a hot streak, The Strip at Las Vegas Motor Speedway will soon hold four of a kind in its hands.

LVMS and parent company Speedway Motorsports Inc. officials announced Wednesday that The Strip has embarked on an ambitious construction program to expand the two-lane dragstrip to a four-lane facility.

The enhanced track will mirror that of its sister track, zMAX Dragway, across from Charlotte Motor Speedway.

When completed, The Strip will hold the first four-lane drag race in the Western U.S. on April 4-6, 2018 with the DENSO Nationals.

 

“Four-wide drag racing has captured the interest of race fans and competitors at Charlotte’s zMAX Dragway,” LVMS president Chris Powell said. “It’s exciting to give everyone on the west coast a chance to see what fans back east have experienced for several years now.

“Four-wide drag racing was the vision of our chairman, Bruton Smith, and our chief executive officer, Marcus Smith. They are two of the key reasons that NHRA drag racing has become one of the most popular forms of motorsports in the world.”

The NHRA is fully onboard with the track’s expansion.

“The excitement and sensory overload of four-wide drag racing is one of the most intense displays of motorsports in the country,” NHRA president Peter Clifford said. “We look forward to presenting the four-wide experience to the dedicated NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series fans in Las Vegas and the surrounding states.”

16-time NHRA Funny Car champion John Force and 3-time NHRA Top Fuel champ Antron Brown are both looking forward to going four-wide in Vegas.

Force won the first four-wide event at zMAX Dragway in 2010, while Brown is a two-time winner in four-wide competition there.

“I’ve got to give credit to Bruton Smith for investing in the sport of NHRA drag racing,” Force said. “His four-lane in Charlotte gave him two races, one with the two-lane in the Countdown (to the Championship playoffs) and then the four-lane in the spring.

“It only makes sense that when he designed his Vegas track, from day one he planned on four lanes. That will allow those two races to be even more successful. So, good for you Bruton, and thank you from all of us at John Force Racing.”

Added Brown, “It will be a lot of fun going to Las Vegas for a four-wide race. It will give our fans on the West Coast what the East Coast fans have had at Charlotte. It will be a real spectacle with four 11,000-horespower cars launching at the same time.

“That will shake Vegas down. It will be a really cool experience.”

The expansion of The Strip, which has begun, will not impact the Oct. 24-26 Toyota Nationals at The Strip.

Follow @JerryBonkowski

MRTI: New oval test awaits Indy Lights, Pro Mazda in Gateway

Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography
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An unknown variable to two of the three Mazda Road to Indy presented by Cooper Tires series comes with this weekend’s races at Gateway Motorsports Park, the first and only oval for the Pro Mazda Championship Presented by Cooper Tires and the third oval for the Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires this season (this race airs August 28 at noon ET on NBCSN).

NEW TRACK ON TAP

The only running for these two series here has been testing, first on the old surface earlier this year and then on the repaved surface a couple weeks ago.

Indy Lights has been to Gateway with both of its prior two iterations, under the Indy Pro Series nomenclature in 2002 and 2003 (won by Ryan Hampton in 2002 and Jeff Simmons in 2003) and four times before that under the old Indy Lights banner in 1997, 1998, 2000 and 2001.

Those winners included Lee Bentham (now Ed Carpenter’s spotter and the Ed Carpenter Racing driver coach), Shigeaki Hattori, now NBCSN IndyCar analyst Townsend Bell and the late Dan Wheldon, respectively.

Bell holds both the qualifying and race lap records at Gateway, 157.205 mph and 28.625 seconds (qualifying) and 157.043 mph and 29.113 seconds (race), set in 2000, but those records should be smashed on the repaved track and with the new car this weekend.

Pro Mazda makes its debut at the track this weekend with a 55-lap race. Indy Lights will go 75 laps around Gateway. Both races are Saturday evening, at 4:55 p.m. and 6 p.m. CT and local time.

TITLE TILT BREAKDOWN

Kyle Kaiser has chance to win Indy Lights title in Gateway. Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography

As the series heads into Gateway, the championship battle could end in one series while it’s all poised to continue in another one.

In Indy Lights, Kyle Kaiser of Juncos Racing had a nightmare weekend at the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course but even so, is well-positioned to lock up this year’s title and the $1 million Mazda Motorsports Advancement Scholarship that goes with it. He has a 42-point lead over both Colton Herta and Santiago Urrutia, 297-255, and will clinch the championship with one race still to go at Watkins Glen provided he leaves Gateway with a 34-point lead.

The maximum swing in points in a 15-car grid is 27 points from first to last, if a driver secures the maximum 33 points (30 for winning with one bonus point apiece for pole, most laps led, and fastest race lap) and the 15th-place finisher scores six points.

A top-five finish for Kaiser will ensure he has at least a 26-point lead over the field, regardless of what others do – he’d have 314 points and the most anyone else could get with the maximum would be 288. So, the odds still remain in his favor barring some extraordinary events.

If Kaiser does clinch this weekend, he’ll be the first to do so in Indy Lights prior to the season finale since Josef Newgarden in 2011, who did so by starting at Kentucky in that year’s penultimate race – he finished second to Stefan Wilson that day. Tristan Vautier and Sage Karam (Fontana), Gabby Chaves (Sonoma), Spencer Pigot and Ed Jones (Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca) have all won the last five titles at the last race of the year, all in California.

Herta and Urrutia’s tie for second (255 points) sees them in a tightly bunched six-way battle for the runner-up spot. With Matheus Leist (249), Zachary Claman De Melo (243), Nico Jamin (242) and Aaron Telitz (233) could all stake their claim for second.

Anthony Martin leads Victory Franzoni at Mid-Ohio. Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography

Quite by contrast, Anthony Martin leads Victor Franzoni by only four points in Pro Mazda (259-255) and the battle between the Cape Motorsports and Juncos Racing driver figures to rage over the final three races. Pro Mazda has the oval this week, then two races at Watkins Glen to sort out that battle.

John Doonan, director of motorsports for Mazda North American Operations, sized up how the MRTI season has gone to date as the series heads into its final two weekends.

“You have ebbs and flows in the season. All three championships are far from being decided,” Doonan told NBC Sports. “The competition level is so intense. The new Tatuus USF-17 has woken some people up internationally as an option.

“Meanwhile I was saying to someone not long ago, the Pro Mazda car is 13 years old and the car has remained relevant that long. To see that car have a sweet swan song with two guys battling out for the title in this car has been great to witness.

“Indy Lights has been ridiculous too. Kaiser has a lengthy points lead, but it’s not done yet. With an oval and Watkins, with multiple races, it’ll be a battle down to the end.”

LOOKING BACK AT RECENT OVALS

Matheus Leist poses at the yard of bricks at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography

Indy Lights has its third oval this season and Leist, who hadn’t driven on an oval until this season but has instantly clicked with Carlin’s engineering team, somehow has the chance to sweep all three of them. The Brazilian teenager dominated at the Freedom 100 in Indianapolis and continued his midsummer run of form with a win from 10th on the grid at his first short oval in Iowa.

Looking back to last year, Kaiser won his first Indy Lights race on the Phoenix 1-mile oval, a track that’s been recently repaved, and a track he thinks will provide a proper comparison to Gateway. Otherwise it was Dean Stoneman (Andretti Autosport, Indianapolis) and Felix Serralles (Carlin, Iowa) who won last year.

In 2015, the first year of the Dallara IL-15 Mazda, there were also three winners in three ovals: Jack Harvey (Schmidt Peterson Motorsports, Indianapolis), Serralles (Belardi Auto Racing, Milwaukee) and Max Chilton (Carlin, Iowa).

Pro Mazda has not raced on an oval since Lucas Oil Raceway in May 2016, Pato O’Ward delivering the win for Team Pelfrey in dominant fashion. Weiron Tan swept the two Pro Mazda races in 2015 for Andretti Autosport at Lucas Oil Raceway and Iowa.

It’s been since 2014, when Spencer Pigot won for Juncos at Milwaukee, that Pro Mazda last raced on a track one mile or longer. Lucas Oil Raceway and Iowa are both under one mile. For the car that launched into then-Star Mazda in 2004, this race at the 1.25-mile Gateway track is the longest oval this car has ever raced on.

WHATEVER FLOATS YOUR BOAT

DAYTONA BEACH, FL – JANUARY 12: Chad Boat, driver of the #84 Billy Boat Motorsports Chevrolet, stands in the garage area during NASCAR Preseason Thunder at Daytona International Speedway on January 12, 2014 in Daytona Beach, Florida. (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/NASCAR via Getty Images)

Chad Boat, in a fourth Belardi Auto Racing entry, will at long last make his Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires race debut. He was meant to at the series’ last short oval race in Iowa but was ruled out, not medically cleared after an accident earlier that week.

Boat’s presence in the field makes it a 15-car Indy Lights field, which in turn opens up the option – however slim – that if Kaiser was to finish last and Urrutia, one of Boat’s three Belardi teammates, won and scored maximum points, could close the 42-point gap down to 15 points leaving Gateway.

For Boat, the 25-year-old son of past IndyCar veteran Billy Boat, the goal will be to gain experience as a short track, dirt track and part-time NASCAR veteran making a welcome entry into the series. He has tested at Gateway in advance of his debut.

While Boat increases the Indy Lights field by one, the Pro Mazda grid dips from 14 its last race at Mid-Ohio down to 10 cars.

IMSA: Michelin GT Challenge provides second GT-only showcase in ’17

Photo courtesy of IMSA
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Three race weekends remain in the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship season, but not three races for all four of its classes.

While the Prototype and Prototype Challenge classes are off until Monterey and Road Atlanta, respectively, this weekend’s two-hour, 40-minute Michelin GT Challenge at VIRginia International Raceway provides the GT Le Mans and GT Daytona their second of two GT-only standalone showcase events this season (Sunday, 1:30 p.m. ET).

Like last race at Road America, variety has been the spice of life among GTLM winners. Risi Competizione, Porsche North America and Corvette Racing have won at VIR the last three years with the No. 62 Ferrari F458 Italia, No. 911 Porsche 911 RSR and No. 3 Corvette C7.R, respectively.

Each of those three car numbers is somewhat intriguing to note this weekend for different reasons.

Photo: Risi Competizione

Risi’s No. 62 Ferrari 488 GTE is back after a several-race hiatus, the team having withdrawn temporarily after an expensive, crash-laden first half of the season through Le Mans. Out of the championship and with nothing to lose, the capable duo of Toni Vilander and Giancarlo Fisichella can properly play spoiler.

Engineer Rick Mayer describes the challenge of picking the best Michelin tire compound for VIR depending on the temperatures: “Michelin tire selection might come into play here as the track is dark and if its sunny will get very hot, maybe favoring one tire compound over another. All GTLMs have Michelin options that span the temperature window. Predicting weather and the best tire compound could be important if the track temperature is variable.”

The No. 911 Porsche, driven this year by Patrick Pilet and Dirk Werner, remains on the fringe of title contention in GTLM at 22 points back in fifth place and look to complete a sweep of the two GT-only races this year, having delivered the new mid-engined car’s first overall win at Lime Rock Park a month ago.

“I have fond memories of this storied racetrack deep in the heart of America. In 2015, we celebrated one-two finish there with Porsche. It’s an old school circuit with many fast curves where you can’t afford to make one mistake. If you end up on the grass, you might as well drive straight back to the pits to get the radiator cleaned,” Pilet said.

Meanwhile it’s No. 3 Corvette C7.R of Antonio Garcia and Jan Magnussen that, having weathered the storm of a few tough races where the Corvette has not had the Balance of Performance in its favor, maintains the points lead and looks for an encore of its win here last year. Magnussen has matched Garcia as one of the series’ best GT drivers really since this race last year. With Corvette having been given a bit of BoP help this weekend (a 0.5 mm air restrictor increase and an increased fuel flow restrictor), it should help the team get back to its usual race winning contention.

Two sets of pairings – Dirk Mueller and Joey Hand (No. 66 Ford Chip Ganassi Racing Ford GT) and Bill Auberlen and Alexander Sims (No. 25 BMW Team RLL BMW M6 GTLM) – remain within striking distance in points at eight and nine points back (239-231-230) of the lead. The second Ford pairing of Ryan Briscoe and Richard Westbrook needs a bit more help at 14 points back.

Consistency has kept the Alessandro Balzan and Christina Nielsen (No. 63 Scuderia Corsa Ferrari 488 GT3) pairing atop the GT Daytona charts despite not winning a race yet this year. At 15 points clear (254-239) of closest rivals Jeroen Bleekemolen and Ben Keating (No. 33 Riley Motorsports-Team AMG Mercedes AMG-GT3), it’d take a poor finish in the 16-car GTD class to see them lose their grip.

Paul Miller Racing won this race last year, the first and thus far only IMSA win for the Lamborghini Huracán GT3 in the hands of Bryan Sellers and Madison Snow, but its post-qualifying technical violation has all but killed any championship hopes here.

Elsewhere Patrick Long is back alongside Daniel Morad in Alegra Motorsports’ No. 28 Porsche 911 GT3 R, as he was at Lime Rock, while the WeatherTech team continues with its Porsche for a second straight race, 3GT Racing keeps its revised Road America lineups, Michael Shank Racing keeps its revised Road America liveries (albeit with a new frame needed to replace the damaged No. 93 Acura NSX GT3 after accident) and Lone Star Racing continues with its Mercedes-AMG GT3, hoping to start its second race after being unable to with various mechanical niggles at Road America.

Photo courtesy of IMSA

“The layout at VIR is an excellent track that makes you feel like you’re really driving somewhere when you’re going around,” explained Mike Skeen, one of Lone Star Racing’s drivers, in this week’s Continental Tire pre-race advance. “It feels like someone just meandered through some fields on a tractor to plan the layout. The result is a great combination of technical corners and flowing, high-speed sections with over 130 feet of elevation change.

“There is plenty of runoff area for the drivers to work with, but all of that beautiful grass proved to be an issue last year for many people that went off course and then had to pit to clean out the grill to avoid overheating. There are also many curbs that we have to use to improve lap times, but they can cause problems if taken too aggressively when the air pressures in our Continental tires are too low.”

Cautions are generally a rarity here with only eight total caution laps over the last three years. Additionally, Lime Rock went caution-free, so it’ll be interesting to see if that cleanliness keeps up.

OTHER NOTES

  • While Tequila Patron ESM with its Nissan Onroak DPi (Pipo Derani) and Team Penske with its Acura ARX-05 (Juan Pablo Montoya and Dane Cameron) have kicked off the IMSA driver market silly season, Mazda Motorsports’ John Doonan provided an update on the Mazda Team Joest status in this week’s Sportscar365 podcast, linked here.
  • In the Continental Tire SportsCar Challenge, a 31-car field heads to VIR for this weekend’s race as well. The GS class points standings are particularly tight with points leaders Dylan Murcott and Dillon Machavern just four points ahead of Cameron Cassels and Trent Hindman, and eight clear of Marc Miller and Till Bechtolsheimer. Miller, who with Danny Burkett took CJ Wilson Racing’s first GS win at this race last year, and his new teammate will have a revised Andy Blackmore Designs livery this weekend with new partner Unit Nutrition adorning the team’s No. 33 Porsche Cayman GT4 Clubsport.
  • Military appreciation at race tracks is always a good thing, and will be part of this weekend at VIR. Operation Motorsport is partnering with the USO of North Carolina this weekend at the Michelin GT Challenge at VIR, with the organization hosting 11 wounded soldiers and veterans from the surrounding Raleigh, Ft. Bragg area and embedding them within a few teams so that they can be part of a motorsports experience as a recovery activity. The organization’s website is linked here.

Vandoorne re-upped with McLaren for 2018

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Heading into his first home Grand Prix, Belgian driver Stoffel Vandoorne will continue with McLaren Honda into 2018. Perhaps more notable was the continued inclusion of Honda as well within the confirmation.

Vandoorne made his Grand Prix debut at Bahrain 2016 and scored a point filling in for Fernando Alonso. He now scored his first 2017 point last race in Hungary, ending 10th as he did in Bahrain.

The Belgian was always expected to continue and it’s been confirmed the team won’t waffle on that.

“I’m delighted that the team has now formally announced that I will continue to race for them next year, because I’ll be able to approach the second half of my rookie season with total focus on the job in hand: namely getting the very most I can out of my car, my engineers, and everything and everyone around me,” Vandoorne said.

“I’ve already learned such a huge amount in the first half of my first season in Formula 1 – from my engineers, from my mechanics, from Eric [Boullier], from Zak [Brown] and from Jonathan [Neale], and also from Fernando [Alonso], who is a brilliant driver and also an excellent team-mate.

“Last but not least, I want to say thank you to McLaren’s partners and fans for their loyalty and enthusiasm – they are the best in the business – and also to McLaren’s Executive Committee Principals, [Shaikh] Mohammed and Mansour [Ojjeh], who continue to put their faith in me.”

Boullier added, “When we announced at the end of 2016 that Stoffel would be a McLaren Honda race driver for 2017, we indicated that our plan was that he’d race for us for a number of years.

“That plan hasn’t changed, and I’m very happy therefore to be able to confirm that he’ll continue to race for us next season.

“Like all rookies, he’s had to learn a lot in the first half of his first Formula 1 season, but we have great confidence in him, and he’s getting better and better all the time. His team-mate is a tough opponent – that’s an understatement in fact, because he’s arguably the best driver in the sport today – but Stoffel’s robust talent and fierce ambition make us sure that he’ll achieve great successes with us in the future.”

Brown confirmed the multi-year number without putting a specific number down on it.

“Echoing Eric’s words, I’d like to add only that I regard Stoffel as a super talent – a future Formula 1 world champion in fact – and that’s why I’ve always been adamant that he should race for us on a multi-year basis,” he said.

“Before anyone asks me any questions about duration, we don’t want to go into that kind of confidential contractual detail, but let me put it this way: when we signed Stoffel, we intended that he would race for us for a significant number of years, and that remains our firm intention.

“We all know Stoffel’s potential, and when we have a package fast enough to win grands prix again – and we will – Stoffel will be in the right place to score his first Formula 1 victory.”

Alonso’s future, of course, remains a hot button topic set to be decided in September at the earliest.