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IMSA: Corvette balances redemption, heartbreak in Long Beach win

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LONG BEACH, Calif. – Covering races off site often leads one to rely heavily on the results sheet – likely too much – without factoring in the circumstances behind how the car, driver or team got there.

So if one was to look at the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship’s BUBBA burger Sports Car Grand Prix and see that Corvette Racing qualified on the pole with its No. 3 Corvette C7.R and won the race with the No. 4 car, you’d think – oh, that was straightforward.

It was easily one of the least straightforward days in the team’s history after a bizarre ending to a goofy race, which packed so much drama in the LBC in just 100 minutes of action.

Jan Magnussen, who’s ratcheted up his performance lately, scored a decisive pole position on Friday in a great effort to put the No. 3 car he shared with the “King of Spain” – Antonio Garcia – on the top spot.

But the race almost went away from them right at the start. Toni Vilander tried an enthusiastic passing maneuver in his No. 62 Risi Competizione Ferrari 488 GTE, as the GTLM leader, to try to pass Ed Brown’s No. 22 Tequila Patron ESM Nissan Onroak DPi on the opening lap of the race exiting Turn 5.

Yet it backfired, badly. Vilander spun Brown, then took himself, Magnussen and Joey Hand in the No. 66 Ford Chip Ganassi Racing Ford GT into the outside wall of the corner in an accordion effect accident.

Vilander’s Ferrari was done on the spot while Magnussen’s Corvette had left front quarter panel damage, and Hand lost the hood of his Ford.

Magnussen didn’t lose a lap though and pressed on with the damage. A second caution 22 minutes into the race provided an opportunity to go off-sequence, which about half the GTLM field did. The No. 3 crew pitted Magnussen to switch him out and put Garcia in. The Spaniard then drove the final 78 minutes on the same set of Michelin tires and tank of fuel, aided by five full-course caution periods.

As the race neared its finish, the No. 24 BMW Team RLL BMW M6 GTLM was leading in class and for that matter overall on the same strategy, but an apparent ECU issue took that car from the lead as it slowed exiting Turn 8. It provided a window for the two Corvettes and the second Ford to barge through into the new podium scenario.

Corvette Racing looked destined for a 1-2 finish, which would have been the team’s first since Lime Rock last year, when disaster struck entirely out of their hands.

A battle between two GTD cars, the No. 96 Turner Motorsport BMW M6 GT3 and the No. 86 Michael Shank Racing Acura NSX GT3, was always going to make the hairpin tricky but when the No. 15 3GT Racing Lexus RC F GT3 attempted to make it three-wide, a rather late lunge from GT class rookie Robert Alon, it turned the Long Beach hairpin into a parking lot on the 405 freeway.

This blocked the track and Garcia was stuck, trapped in behind the three cars on the outside of the corner apex. When one of the GT cars was able to get out, it opened up a lane for the No. 4 Corvette, driven by Tommy Milner and started by Oliver Gavin, to go through to the win over the No. 67 Ford. Garcia dropped to fifth.

IMSA reviewed the incident, and a series spokesperson confirmed the traffic jam was deemed an “incident in progress.” In layman’s terms, that meant if you were stuck in the incident, you were trapped, while if you were able to get out of the incident, you could get out. The field was not frozen as it was not a full-course caution but only a local caution in that corner, and the overall leader had already taken the checkered flag as the GT cars were on their final lap.

“I’ve seen a lot of races before, but none like that,” Danny Binks, the legendary crew chief on the No. 3 Corvette, lamented to NBC Sports. The only logical conclusion to occur at this point was that Garcia had exhausted all his luck with the racing gods after his heroic drive at Sebring, and the racing gods felt compelled to take one away that they giveth in Florida.

Meanwhile for the No. 4 car, it provided the quirkiest bit of redemption because a Porsche took Milner out at the hairpin last year.

While the win was appreciated for the No. 4 car, it was still hard to swallow because the No. 3 had the win to rights by strategy.

Gavin and Milner attempted to explain a race that was lacking in rhythm all the way through.

“The start for me was pretty interesting. I was coming into turn 1 and it looked like Jan had been jumped by the Ferrari and the Ford,” Gavin said. “And on first laps here you’re looking at who’s tires are up to temp and who is taking chances. It looked like everyone was taking chances. And by Turn 5 it looked like the Patron car was already into the curbing there. The three of us managed to avoid any contact after the stopped car. We were 1-2-3 then and it was just some insane racing, not by just us three, but by all the cars.

“There were some choice moves by a lot of cars out there, everyone wanted to win it, but making moves with 85 minutes to go. So I was just trying to keep the car clean and hand it over to Tommy for the finish. And the way the team managed the pit stop, we managed to get the car out in front of everyone we were racing. But the race kept turning on its head, and it’s one of those you can’t take your eyes off.”

Gavin then highlighted a variance in the technical regulations about the different elements the GT Daytona class cars have which the others in the series don’t.

“This really highlights an issue in that I really don’t think you can run cars with ABS in the same series with cars that don’t have ABS,” he said. “I think you have to have everyone on it, or no one. Especially in our class, trying to get past those guys, someone can make it really hard. They can park the thing in the middle of the corner and drag strip it off. We have to develop the speed with Michelin, and in the chassis and our team. And ABS on this circuit is something you can rely on and be a hero. Driving around here without ABS, you’re holding your breath trying to find out if you’re on the limit at every corner. With ABS you can just hump on the pedal and turn the wheel and the car looks after itself. This race really highlights that. I think it’s part of some of the reasons the race happened that way today.”

Photo: Corvette Racing

Milner then offered take on the race: “It was just a weird race today for sure. We started off a bit behind and it looked like the strategy wasn’t going to pay off for us, and the cautions made for the people who made the stop early were going to play it out on fuel. Then we kind of hoped for yellows to bunch us back up there. I was racing hard with Briscoe and Antonio and the BMW, but I had newer tires by 14 laps. The BMW had a problem coming off of turn 8 and I kind of went for it. I expected him to keep going, but he didn’t. we got a little sideways with the Ford and it freed up where Antonio was and we both pulled away. Certainly my newer tires were better, but getting by Antonio was going to be pretty tough.

“Then we came to the last corner there, I knew the race was over because Antonio had a bit of a gap on me. It came on the radio and I saw the caution flags there. It was free, and then it wasn’t. I tried going to the outside in the same situation last time and lost spots. This time I went on the inside. I wasn’t even full speed, I was cruising thinking we were under caution. Then I saw the green flags and the guys on the radio said we were P1. Racing is a lot about luck in a lot of cases, I don’t think I’ve seen it play out this way for me or for anyone else. It’s good to just get some points for me and for Chevrolet and Corvette and so we’ll start to go on to the next one.

“At no point do I feel like I was in a rhythm until the last 4 or 5 laps and then I could see what the car could do and find its limits, then start taking off tenths. For those short spurts you could see it was going to be hard to pass cars. I can’t say I took an opportunity at the hair pin, I just lucked out. It goes along with having classes similar in speed in a lot of places. Certainly the GTD cars are quicker in a few places. The way we mixed together is not ideal and this track really highlights those mismatches. Those guys are racing hard and we all have to co-exist, and it’s hard to get 100 drivers to co-exist for an entire race. It’s not ideal, but you make the most of it and deal with it.”

At least one Garcia won this weekend, as Sergio captured The Masters, and Garcia and Gavin had some fun with it on social media…

With this the 104th win in program history, albeit one of the strangest ones, it’s worth looking at how Corvette Racing has endured and sustained the success over nearly 20 years. A quick answer to that can be found below:

Hulkenberg: Singapore DNF ‘tough to take’ after strong start

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Nico Hulkenberg has admitted his retirement from last weekend’s Singapore Grand Prix was “tough to take” after being in contention to end his long-running Formula 1 podium drought.

Hulkenberg entered the Singapore weekend ready to break the record for making the most F1 starts without recording a top-three finish, having tied Adrian Sutil’s tally of 128 races at Monza.

Hulkenberg qualified an excellent fifth for Renault and dodged the start-line chaos to rise to third, and even ran second for one lap before switching tires.

Hulkenberg settled into fourth place when the switch to dry tires was complete, only for an oil leak on his car to force him to make an unscheduled pit stop and ultimately retire from the race.

“Sunday was tough to take and left me feeling disappointed. We lost a good result, and it was a case of not having a good enough reliability; that’s the way this sport goes sometimes,” Hulkenberg said.

“We lost our fourth position which is a pity especially after all the hard work from the whole team. It would have been a nice bunch of points but that’s racing and it happens!

“The car is looking fast and we have to build on the positives and take it forward now to Malaysia.”

IndyCar points by circuit type: 2017

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After separate reviews of the street and oval portions of the 2017 Verizon IndyCar Series season – led by Josef Newgarden and Helio Castroneves, respectively – the GoPro Grand Prix of Sonoma season finale was of course, the final road course race of the year as well.

And a third different driver topped the charts in those six permanent road course races this year, in the form of Scott Dixon.

Dixon had one win (Road America) and three runners-up finishes in the six races, with other finishes of fourth (Sonoma) and ninth (Mid-Ohio) which brought him 261 points in these races. That was two points clear of Newgarden, who won at Barber and Mid-Ohio and finished second at both Road America and Sonoma, while losing points at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course and Watkins Glen.

The top six drivers in permanent road course points – Dixon, Newgarden, Simon Pagenaud, Will Power, Castroneves and Graham Rahal – were also the top six drivers in the overall points, albeit not in that order.

For the year, it was interesting to note how being consistent across all three phases of circuit netted the best results.

The two biggest outliers were Power – who was only 14th in street course points but second in oval and fourth in road course points – who ended fifth in points overall and Kanaan, who overcame 16th (street course) and 18th (road course) points positions with third place in oval points, trailing only Castroneves and Power.

That oval haul brought Kanaan up to 10th in points in a year where several others – notably James Hinchcliffe, Max Chilton and Ed Jones – all occasionally staked their claim to the final spot in the top-10.

Otherwise, consistency across all circuits was key to securing your overall points position for the year.

The breakdown of points per driver by circuit type is below.

P # Driver Street Road Oval Total
1 2 Josef Newgarden 185 259 198 642
2 1 Simon Pagenaud 147 256 226 629
3 9 Scott Dixon 159 261 201 621
4 3 Helio Castroneves 126 220 252 598
5 12 Will Power 86 244 232 562
6 15 Graham Rahal 162 191 169 522
7 98 Alexander Rossi 126 171 197 494
8 26 Takuma Sato 115 112 214 441
9 28 Ryan Hunter-Reay 105 178 138 421
10 10 Tony Kanaan 79 97 227 403
11 8 Max Chilton 91 141 164 396
12 27 Marco Andretti 103 119 166 388
13 5 James Hinchcliffe 155 99 122 376
14 19 Ed Jones 88 99 167 354
15 21 JR Hildebrand 78 90 179 347
16 14 Carlos Munoz 85 109 134 328
17 83 Charlie Kimball 72 135 120 327
18 4 Conor Daly 68 120 117 305
19 7 Mikhail Aleshin 77 68 92 237
20 20 Spencer Pigot 75 114 29 218
21 18 Sebastien Bourdais 93 89 32 214
22 20 Ed Carpenter 169 169
23 88 Gabby Chaves 98 98
24 22 Juan Pablo Montoya 20 73 93
25 18 Esteban Gutierrez 43 23 25 91
26 7 Sebastian Saavedra 19 61 80
27 16 Oriol Servia 21 40 61
28 7 Jack Harvey 40 17 57
29 29 Fernando Alonso 47 47
30 63 Pippa Mann 32 32
31 13 Zachary Claman DeMelo 26 26
32 77 Jay Howard 24 24
33 24 Sage Karam 23 23
34 40 Zach Veach 11 12 23
35 18 James Davison 21 21
36 18 Tristan Vautier 15 15
37 44 Buddy Lazier 14 14
38 7 Robert Wickens 0 0

Ed Jones adds name to IndyCar’s elite as top rookie in 2017

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Sure, you can say Ed Jones didn’t have a full-season counterpart for IndyCar’s Sunoco Rookie of the Year honors in 2017 and so he was always going to win the award.

But in a year when you don’t have competition and the other first-year drivers did only selected races, you have to compare yourself to the rest of the field at large and make an impression – and Jones clearly did so for Dale Coyne Racing.

Per Trackside Online, Jones joins this list of drivers in the series’ full-time lineup who won top rookie honors in their year of eligibility: Alexander Rossi, Carlos Munoz, Simon Pagenaud, James Hinchcliffe, Ryan Hunter-Reay, Marco Andretti, Will Power, Sebastien Bourdais, Scott Dixon, and Tony Kanaan.

FORT WORTH, TX – JUNE 09: Ed Jones, driver of the #19 Boy Scouts of America Honda, sits in his car during practice for the Verizon IndyCar Series Rainguard Water Sealers 600 at Texas Motor Speedway on June 9, 2017 in Fort Worth, Texas. (Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images)

Heading into last year’s offseason, Jones was not the favorite to take over the No. 19 Boy Scouts of America Honda; fellow Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires veteran RC Enerson was on the heels of three impressive debut races at the tail end of 2016.

However Jones was always going to need a place to land with the $1 million Mazda Motorsports advancement scholarship for at least three races. Between that and with additional budget gathered, Jones found his way into Dale Coyne’s second seat alongside Sebastien Bourdais and together the pairing clicked.

Coyne had his eye on him throughout 2016, and watched him win the Indy Lights title at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca – albeit under somewhat controversial circumstances when Carlin teammate Felix Serralles pulled aside to allow Jones through.

“It was Indy Lights. We went to his last race at Laguna Seca when he won the championship,” Coyne said. “We kept an eye on him. We keep an eye on all Indy Lights guys as well. It’s close, we can see them, watch them race, see how aggressive they are.

“He was always smooth in the car. I didn’t know how good he was going to be, because he was smooth. He doesn’t look like Paul Tracy in a car, but he drives better than Paul Tracy, at least in the beginning, at least Paul’s first year. He was a pleasant — it was the biggest surprise we’ve ever had.”

Jones, the 22-year-old Dubai-based Brit who makes his U.S. residence in Miami, was an instant hit on results if not on outright pace. But with finishes of sixth, 10th and 11th among his first five starts and other results lost due to circumstances outside his control, he immediately made a positive impact in the paddock.

Where Jones grew up fastest in a year where he matured so much from a more quiet and reserved driver in Indy Lights – much of that thanks to the family atmosphere at Coyne and its ace PR rep, Karina Redmond – was in May. Bourdais went from points leader and potential Indianapolis 500 contender to hospital-bound after his devastating accident in qualifying.

INDIANAPOLIS, IN – MAY 28: Max Chilton of England, driver of the #8 Gallagher Honda, Helio Castroneves of Brazil, driver of the #3 Shell Fuel Rewards Team Penske Chevrolet, and Ed Jones of the United Arab Emirates, driver of the #19 Boy Scouts of America Honda, lead a pack of cars during the 101st Indianapolis 500 at Indianapolis Motorspeedway on May 28, 2017 in Indianapolis, Indiana. (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

Jones, meanwhile, was suddenly thrust into the unexpected role of team leader, not knowing week-to-week who his teammate might be depending on the issue. Similar to Alexander Rossi last year, Jones carried a quiet swagger during the month of May in Indianapolis, and was aggrieved for getting knocked out of the Fast Nine shootout.

What he did on race day was equally as impressive as Rossi’s 2016 win in the ‘500 if not more so, considering the disparity in equipment and the fact Jones’ car was damaged in the nose from debris contacting it earlier in the race.

That third place finish (and the double points that went with it) was enough to earn many votes for this year’s Indianapolis 500 top rookie honors (including from this writer) although it wasn’t enough to supplant Fernando Alonso for the award, somewhat controversially. Coyne couldn’t resist trolling during Jones’ season-long top rookie acceptance press conference at Sonoma.

“Obviously Indy, third place there. Did you get Rookie of the Year at Indy or no? Didn’t get that, okay,” Coyne deadpanned.

Alas, Jones pressed on anyway with a consistent appetite for learning, thanks to Coyne’s tutelage, Michael Cannon’s sharp mind on the engineering stand and a crew that embraced him.

“It’s hard to say. There’s a lot of advice that Dale’s given me,” Jones said. “But, you know, he’s always been very supportive of learning everything step by step, learning from Seb. Every time I get to every weekend, even every session, I remember early on it was try to learn as much as you can, take it step by step, there’s no need to overdo it early on.

“I seen myself as well as one of the guys, rookies, younger guys that would come in and they try to be right at the front the beginning. In a series that’s so competitive like this, it doesn’t really happen that often. It’s extreme difficult to do it. Sometimes doing that, you can actually take steps backwards because you kind of lose where you’re at. It’s always better to sort of take it step by step, yeah, get there that way.”

After a ninth place at Detroit race one, Jones’ results suffered the rest of the way through a myriad of mishaps – be it tough setups, bad caution timing, an occasional spin or pit stop issues. A seventh at Road America was the lone bright spot, and a potential top-10 championship finish went begging. Losing Bourdais hurt primarily from a setup standpoint.

“I wasn’t always sure if it was just me or if it was a lot with the car. Yeah, that was the main thing. Seb is really good with setting up the car. Having his feedback to work off from was really helpful,” he said.

“If I ever wasn’t sure about something, I could use him to back something up. Not having him there, yeah, made it harder. Sometimes I was guessing a bit more. So, yeah, that was the toughest part.”

Jones said his driving and development got better as the year went on as, paradoxically, the results got worse.

“It’s always difficult not having another full-time rookie to compare to. Then again, I’ve looked at the rookies over the last few years. I’ve seen it’s extremely tough. I feel pretty happy with how it’s gone in comparison to other guys recently,” he said.

“I wanted to finish top-10 in the points. Halfway through the season, we were on track to doing that. We had a good opportunity to do it. The last few races, things have maybe not gone to plan.

“But I feel like as a driver, I got stronger. Early on in the season, I had some really great results. I was driving well, but also a lot of things fell my way. I was pretty lucky in that sense. Now I think we’ve gone better, me as a driver, also binding with the team. We got stronger, but things just haven’t gone our way. It’s been frustrating.”

None of the issues were egregious and as Coyne related later, Jones was one of the cleanest drivers he’d ever had in a year where the crash damage bills added up fast.

FORT WORTH, TX – JUNE 09: Ed Jones, driver of the #19 Boy Scouts of America Honda, and Tristan Vautier, driver of the #18 Dale Coyne Racing Honda, practice for the Verizon IndyCar Series Rainguard Water Sealers 600 at Texas Motor Speedway on June 9, 2017 in Fort Worth, Texas. (Photo by Sarah Crabill/Getty Images)

With a rotating driver in the second car, be it James Davison, Esteban Gutierrez or Tristan Vautier before Bourdais’ welcome and surprise return at Gateway, Jones was the unexpected but needed rock in the driver lineup.

“I think it’s been a whole progression the whole year. We’ve run a lot of rookies over the years. We run rookies in tests that have never made it to a race, we ran rookies that made it to races,” Coyne said.

“He’s just a puppy. But he’s done a good job, very, very good. I don’t think he scratched the car. He actually did hit the wall at Pocono. The smallest amount of damage I’ve ever seen anybody do hitting a wall at Pocono. Done a very good job all year long, every track.”

Jones isn’t back yet for 2018, but Coyne said “We’re very, very close. I would love to have Ed back next year,” and wants to have a deal struck in the next few weeks.

Looking at what he did as a rookie was quite impressive. The five top-10s matched Conor Daly’s number last year as the lone full-season driver and while Daly was 18th in points in his first full season, Jones ended 14th.

That 14th place in the standings is a Coyne driver’s best finish in the standings since the late Justin Wilson’s incredible run to sixth in 2013, and actually a spot ahead of where Wilson was the following year in 2014, in 15th.

Jones’ qualifying average of 14.3 was 3.5 spots higher than Daly’s last year and Jones out-qualified his teammates nine times this year in 17 races, including Bourdais on three of eight attempts.

What he did for the team this year overall in a tough season will be remembered more than the results itself which again, were impressive given thee circumstances.

“It’s been very tough. But the whole team together, everyone within the team works very well together from the beginning of the year. A big shame to lose Seb after quite a few races. Everyone got on well with it. I remember after the accident, actually Dale got everyone together. We pushed forward,” he said.

“I think there’s been a lot of times that on Dale’s team, there’s things that have happened, gone up and down. As we’ve seen, they’ve always come back stronger.”

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McLaren ‘very close’ to agreeing new F1 deal with Alonso

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McLaren is “very close” to agreeing a new Formula 1 contract with Fernando Alonso beyond the end of the 2017 season, according to team racing director Eric Boullier.

McLaren announced last week in Singapore it would be splitting with struggling engine supplier Honda at the end of the season, linking up with Renault from 2018.

The decision was made in a bid to lift the team to the front of the field, having struggled for much of the past three years while working with Honda.

Alonso has made no secret of his frustration throughout the three-year stint, prompting the Spaniard to consider his future with McLaren upon the expiration of his contract at the end of the year.

With the driver market closing up, Alonso looks poised to remain with McLaren for 2018, but said in Singapore he is considering options in many series.

Speaking to the official F1 website, Boullier expressed his confidence in Alonso staying for 2018, saying a deal was “very close”.

“Fernando wants to stay. You can see it in his body language and the way he speaks,” Boullier added.

“There are marketing details that have to be sorted out, and that Zak [Brown, McLaren executive director] is working on.”

Despite suggestions of an ultimatum regarding its Honda partnership being issued to McLaren by Alonso, Boullier stressed that the team made the decision to switch to Renault by its own accord, with the drivers then fitting in afterwards for its 2018 plans.

“McLaren’s DNA is to be competitive. The team has always been in the top three and we belong there again,” Boullier said.

“Today we know that we have a decent chassis, which would allow us to be in the top three again with an equal level engine.

“So for us as a business it is important to be competitive, no matter what role Fernando plays. We had to make a decision for us.

“But if you want to be competitive you not only need an engine, you also need a driver. That is when Fernando comes into the picture.

“We did what we did for McLaren first, but the package includes also the driver.”