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.

After ‘rough start’ to 2017, Raikkonen responds with Russia podium

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Kimi Raikkonen was pleased to put a “rough start” to the 2017 Formula 1 season behind him by charging to third place in Sunday’s Russian Grand Prix for Ferrari.

Raikkonen entered the Sochi weekend with half the points of Ferrari teammate Sebastian Vettel, having seen the German driver claim two wins and one second-place finish in the opening three rounds of the year.

Raikkonen had failed to hit the podium in F1 since the Austrian Grand Prix in July, but nearly scored his first F1 pole for nine years on Saturday after running Vettel close in qualifying.

Despite slipping behind eventual race winner Valtteri Bottas at the start, Raikkonen was able to keep Mercedes’ Lewis Hamilton back early on before enduring a rather lonely race en route to third place.

“I think I have had a bit of a rough start to the season, far from ideal. This weekend for sure has been a step forward,” Raikkonen said on the podium after the race.

“We’ve been more happy with how things have been running, but we still only finished third. We lost out off the start and then not an awful lot happened after that.

“We keep trying and keep improving, I’m sure we’ll get there. It’s all about all the small details have to be exactly there, then you will get the first place, because the four of us are very close most of the time.

“It’s a small difference that makes a big difference in the end.”

Despite clinching a double podium with Vettel and Raikkonen in P2 and P3 respectively, Ferrari lost the lead of the constructors’ championship in Russia as Bottas’ victory pushed Mercedes one point clear.

Vettel heaps praise on ‘man of the race’ Bottas after Russia F1 win

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Sebastian Vettel was quick to heap praise upon Mercedes rival Valtteri Bottas following the Finn’s maiden Formula 1 victory in Russia on Sunday.

Vettel entered the race in Sochi chasing his third win of the season from pole position, only for Bottas to blast past him on the run to Turn 2 on the opening lap.

Bottas was able to pull clear through the first stint before Vettel reeled the Mercedes driver in during the closing stages, with the Ferrari looking faster on the super-soft tire.

Vettel eventually fell 0.6 seconds shy of Bottas at the flag, but was full of praise for the first-time winner despite missing out on victory himself.

“I obviously tried everything to catch Valtteri, I thought there might be some kind of opportunity on the back straight,” Vettel explained.

“I was sure [Felipe Massa, who was being lapped] would lift around Turn 3, it’s flat out, and let me by so I wouldn’t lose much time. But then I think just wasn’t sure what he was going to do, and ended up losing a bit more than I was hoping for.

“In the end it doesn’t matter. I think this is the man of the race today, big congrats to Valtteri, his first grand prix win. It’s his day.

“I think we tried everything, but obviously we lost the race at the start, which was a bit of a shame. I had a good start. I think our start was probably a match to Valtteri, maybe he gained a bit of momentum at the beginning, but then he had a massive tow.

“I defended the inside, but by the time we approached braking he was already in front and able to shut the door on me, so well done. That’s where he won the race, and then he did a superb first stint, I couldn’t stay with him.

“He was very, very quick all race, no mistakes. As I said, man of the race.”

Despite finishing second, Vettel managed to extend his championship lead to 13 points in Russia after closest-rival Lewis Hamilton ailed to fourth place in the second Mercedes.

Bottas: First F1 win feels ‘amazing’, worth the 81-race wait

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Valtteri Bottas made no secret of his delight after scoring his first Formula 1 race win in Russia on Sunday, beating Ferrari drivers Sebastian Vettel and Kimi Raikkonen to victory at the Sochi Autodrom.

In just his fourth race for Mercedes, Bottas charged from third place on the grid to seize the lead at the start en route to his maiden grand prix victory, coming on his 81st start.

Bottas made his F1 debut back in 2013 with Williams, and had not won a race since a British Formula 3 round at Donington Park in 2011 before today’s breakthrough.

“Amazing. It took quite a while, more than 80 races for me, but definitely worth the wait and worth the learning curve,” Bottas said after the race.

“This strange opportunity came to me in the winter to join this team, and they made it possible today, so really want to thank the team. Without them it wouldn’t be possible. It feels amazing.”

The result marked Mercedes’ second win of the season and sees the German marque re-claim the lead of the constructors’ championship, moving one point clear of Ferrari.

“We’ve had a tricky beginning of the year. The fight with Ferrari, again today, was very close,” Bottas said.

“We managed to be on top, but we have to keep pushing. We have to keep finishing with both cars all the time one and two.

“Just very, very happy now.”

Bottas takes maiden F1 victory in Russia despite late Vettel charge

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Valtteri Bottas became Formula 1’s newest winner after dominating Sunday’s Russian Grand Prix for Mercedes, leading home Sebastian Vettel and Kimi Raikkonen at the Sochi Autodrom on Sunday.

In what was something of a slow-burner in Sochi, Bottas managed to seize the lead from pole-sitter Vettel at the start before perfecting the restart after a safety car period to create a healthy buffer that acted as the foundation for his first F1 victory.

Despite a late charge from Vettel – chasing his third win of the season – in the closing stages, Bottas was able to hang on and become the fifth Finnish driver to claim a grand prix victory, coming in just his fourth race for Mercedes.

Ferrari’s advantage in qualifying was quickly overturned at the start when Bottas managed to get a slipstream on both Vettel and Raikkonen, allowing him to pass ahead of Turn 2. Vettel settled down in second ahead of Raikkonen and Lewis Hamilton, but the race was quickly neutralized following a clash between Romain Grosjean and Jolyon Palmer that sparked a safety car period.

Bottas managed to perfect the restart once the incident had been cleared to quickly gap Vettel, opening up a three-second lead in the laps that followed. Hamilton was doing his best to keep in touch with Raikkonen in third, only for Mercedes to confirm that his car was overheating, forcing him to ease off his pace.

The battle for fifth also took a twist in the early stages of the race when Daniel Ricciardo suffered a brake failure, forcing him to retire from the race. Max Verstappen was able to move ahead of Felipe Massa off the line, giving Red Bull something to be upbeat about, but hopes of the podium remained slim.

Bottas’ lead stood at around five seconds after 20 laps, but his lead soon began to fall. A mixture of both traffic and tire blistering allowed Vettel to gain time hand-over-fist as the first round of pit stops neared, moving to within three seconds of the Finnish driver.

Bottas was the first of the leaders to pit, coming in for a new set of super-soft tires at the end of Lap 27. Mercedes serviced Bottas quickly, but Ferrari did not react immediately, instead choosing to keep Vettel out in the hope that the ‘overcut’ would play into his hands again as it did in Australia.

Ferrari eventually pulled the trigger on Lap 34, bringing Vettel in to make the switch to super-soft tires after seeing Raikkonen lay down an impressive pace after changing compound a few laps earlier. With Bottas struggling to match the pace of the Ferraris on the super-softs, the Finn’s stranglehold on the race looked weaker than before despite being back in the lead.

Vettel made up yet more time with 13 laps to go when Bottas ran wide at Turn 13, appearing to struggle with his front-left tire and lock up. The mistake allowed Vettel to close to within two seconds, setting the stage for a fight to the flag.

Vettel managed to find some clear air between traffic and move around a second behind Bottas with four laps to go. Bottas kept getting a good exit from the final corner, ensuring Vettel did not get DRS at first, making it difficult for the Ferrari driver to pull a pass.

A good lap saw Vettel finally dip under the one second margin and get the DRS boost with two laps to go. With Bottas also coming across traffic, the pair were separated by just a few car lengths heading onto the final lap.

Bottas was offered a late bonus when he came across Felipe Massa, running a lap down, and was able to use DRS himself. Massa also made life difficult for Vettel behind, allowing Bottas to move clear once again.

It proved to be the final act in an exciting finish, with Bottas coming through to secure his maiden grand prix victory and give Mercedes its second win of the year. Vettel was left to settle for P2, but extended his lead in the drivers’ championship in the process to 13 points.

Kimi Raikkonen endured a rather lonely finish to the race, crossing the line third to pick up his first podium finish of the year. He finished over 15 seconds clear of Lewis Hamilton, whose difficult weekend came to a quiet end in P4, over 20 seconds down on the race winner.

Max Verstappen led Red Bull’s charge alone in fifth place following Ricciardo’s early retirement, while Sergio Perez and Esteban Ocon continued Force India’s record of getting both cars into the points at every race, the pair finishing sixth and seventh respectively.

Nico Hulkenberg was able to follow his first points for Renault in Bahrain with a second charge into the top 10, finishing eighth. Felipe Massa had looked set to finish sixth, only for a slow puncture to force him into a late second stop, leaving him P9 at the flag. Carlos Sainz Jr. rounded out the points for Toro Rosso in 10th.

Lance Stroll recorded his first race finish in F1, crossing the line 11th in the second Williams, while home favorite Daniil Kvyat was left to settle for 12th. Kevin Magnussen and Stoffel Vandoorne finished 13th and 14th respectively for Haas and McLaren, both having been hit with penalties for exceeding track limits on the opening lap. Marcus Ericsson and Pascal Wehrlein finished 15th and 16th respectively for Sauber, closing out the classified running order.

Fernando Alonso’s struggles with McLaren-Honda hit a new low just before the race started when he suffered a power unit failure on the formation lap, forcing him to abandon his car at pit entry. It went down as his first ‘Did Not Start’ since the 2005 United States Grand Prix at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, which curiously will be his next destination for his IndyCar test with Andretti Autosport on Wednesday.

Formula 1 returns in two weeks’ time with the Spanish Grand Prix in Barcelona.