Photo: Blackdog Speed Shop

New Chevrolet Camaro GT4.R turning heads in both PWC, IMSA

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The second race debut of one of sports car racing’s newest – and perhaps coolest – models comes to life this weekend at Circuit of The Americas.

The Chevrolet Camaro GT4.R of course has already been seen in action at the first two Pirelli World Challenge weekends with longtime GM competitor Blackdog Speed Shop, at entirely separate circuits from the streets of St. Petersburg to the fast, flowing VIRginia International Raceway.

The car’s full technical specs from its reveal are linked here, but of note, it is rear-wheel drive, unitized body with 2-way adjustable struts & dampers and front & rear anti-roll bars, featuring a 6.2L V8 naturally aspirated direct injection engine and a six-speed sequential transmission with paddle shifters.

Now, the car swaps its boots – Continentals replace the Pirellis – as a third different Camaro GT4.R chassis makes its race debut in IMSA Continental Tire SportsCar Challenge competition with Stevenson Motorsports.

The difference in series and tires also comes with a change in the driver lineup. Lawson Aschenbach is committed to Tony Gaples’ Blackdog’s Camaro program in PWC’s GTS class, but although he competes with Stevenson in IMSA, it’s actually in the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship’s GT Daytona class sharing an Audi R8 LMS with Andrew Davis.

That leaves Davis’ longtime co-driver and past Continental Tire Challenge co-champion, Robin Liddell, to share the No. 57 Camaro GT4.R with Aschenbach’s past co-driver, one of the series’ most successful qualifiers in Matt Bell. As you can see below, Bell and Liddell are already up to antics…

ASCHENBACH, GAPLES, BLACKDOG LAY THE GROUNDWORK

Photo: Blackdog Speed Shop

It’s a switched-up lineup but with Aschenbach as the guide to the car’s performance from his first two PWC weekends, hopes are high for the latest first race for the new car this weekend.

He’s driven the new GT4.R in addition to the previous generation Z/28.R, which he raced the last time Stevenson ran a Camaro in Continental Tire Challenge competition in 2015 and also with Blackdog in PWC last year, and the previous generation Camaro SS in PWC in 2013 and 2014, both years where he won class championships.

“The GT4.R is a step forward compared to the previous generation race car,” Aschenbach told NBC Sports. “We were able to compile all of the information, and knowledge learned over the past few years with the Z/28, and carefully put that into the development of the new car.

“The handling characteristics aren’t extremely different, but they are much more refined. We were able to keep the braking performance and stability, along with the high speed corner grip. However, we now have better aero balance, and a lighter, more nimble car.

“I feel the GT4.R will be competitive on any track, and on any tire, which is important when it comes to a customer based program.”

CUSTOMER-BASED FOCUS

The key phrasing outlined there is customer-based. GM’s road racing portfolio in recent years has centered on its factory or factory-supported efforts but in 2017, times may be changing on that front.

The flagship Corvette Racing team in WeatherTech has only run with one longtime Corvette chassis customer in Larbre Competition, Jack Leconte’s French team. Cadillac’s PWC GT effort has never seen customers for its CTS-V.R and now ATS-V.R models.

However Cadillac supports multiple teams in WeatherTech now, with the Konica Minolta (Wayne Taylor Racing) and Mustang Sampling and Whelen Engineering teams (Action Express Racing) the first two teams to acquire the new Cadillac DPi-V.R models; the potential is well there for that car to be available to others down the road.

Blackdog Racing; Pirelli World Challenge; St. Petersburg, Florida; March 9-12, 2017; #10 Blackdog Speed Shop Chevrolet Camaro GT4.R driven by Lawson Aschenbach and #11 Blackdog Speed Shop Chevrolet Camaro GT4.R driven by Tony Gaples (Richard Prince Photo)

And beyond Blackdog and Stevenson, the goal for the Camaro GT4.R long-term is for it to be sold to customers. The previous generation Z/28.R had only one additional customer in Mantella Autosport, with the Canadian team running those for only one season in Continental Tire Challenge before going to PWC and running KTM X-BOW GT4s from 2016.

“We anticipate this being a customer car program,” Mark Kent, Director, Motorsports Competition – Chevrolet, told reporters at the car’s St. Petersburg debut. “We’re still working out the process and pricing, but that is our long-term intention. This year we’re focusing with Blackdog here, and a team (Stevenson) in the Continental Tire SportsCar Challenge series. After that would be when we turn it into a customer program.

“It’s based off the Camaro ZL1, but you’ll also see a lot of resemblance to one we introduced at Daytona. It was developed with Pratt & Miller. The engine is built and supplied by our own manufacturers.”

Shawn Meagher is a name you may well get to know more as the year progresses, as the program advances. He is the Camaro GT4.R Program Manager – Chevrolet, and praised the development the teams have done to get the car to this point this early in its development life cycle.

“We have such a high performance car. It makes a lot easier when you work very closely with the production team,” Meagher told reporters at St. Petersburg. “In turn we have a lot of data or background with the production colleagues. We move very quickly and aggressively with such a good background.

“There’s some similarities to the Camaro. This new car is an evolution. That’s one of the reasons why Blackdog Speed Shop which ran the old cars in the past, can execute very well.”

QUICK START

Blackdog Racing; Pirelli World Challenge; St. Petersburg, Florida; March 9-12, 2017; #10 Blackdog Speed Shop Chevrolet Camaro GT4.R driven by Lawson Aschenbach and #11 Blackdog Speed Shop Chevrolet Camaro GT4.R driven by Tony Gaples (Richard Prince Photo)

Aschenbach proved the new car’s potential right out of the box – literally – as he took a debut pole at St. Petersburg in the same week the team took delivery of one of its chassis. Aschenbach, who is teammates to Blackdog team principal Tony Gaples, finished second in both races.

“To be able to roll out of the trailer, and qualify on the pole was a massive feat for the new GT4.R. Not to mention two podiums!” Aschenbach said. “I was impressed by how well the car handled the tight, twisty parts of the circuit, something we struggled with in the past. It seems that we have a more complete car this year.”

As in St. Petersburg, Aschenbach completed a double podium at VIR, coming third in both races. The second third proved the car’s durability under duress as Aschenbach fought hard with Ian James’ Panoz Esperante Avezzano, the likable James later issued a post-race penalty for driving conduct and docked one position from third to fourth.

So that’s four podiums and a class points lead for Aschenbach in the one series where the car will complete a full season this year. Aschenbach also thanked Gaples for a selfless act done in the betterment of the team after a parts issue arose.

“I believe we achieved the maximum result possible. The balance was spot on all weekend, and we worked hard to make sure the car wasn’t going to abuse the tires too quickly,” Aschenbach explained.

“We had a differential issue in qualifying, but Tony was very kind to allow us to swap parts so I could compete in race one. It was hard for all of us to see him sit it out, but fortunately we were able to fly some parts in so he could partake in race two.

“All-in-all it’s been an incredible start to the season with the new Camaro GT4.R. I feel we have the car, team, and pace to battle for a championship. Although we are pushing hard to win races, execution has become the name of the game early in the season.”

STEVENSON’S LATEST CAMARO EVOLUTION

And so that leaves the focus on Stevenson – which won the Continental Tire Challenge GS championship the last time it competed in the series with Davis and Liddell – to look to secure the car’s first win at Circuit of The Americas this weekend, a track where the old Z/28.R scored its fourth and final win of that 2015 title season.

This also continues the tradition of Stevenson premiering new Camaro race cars. The team has debuted the GT.R (2009) and the Z/28.R (2014) racing in both the GRAND-AM Rolex Series and the Continental Tire SportsCar Challenge. The GT4.R will mark the third consecutive Camaro generation that the team will debut.

It’s up to Liddell and Bell to tell the tail of how the new car gets on this weekend, while leaving Aschenbach in the unusual position of rooting for a car he drives in another series, watching from the pit box!

Stevenson’s last COTA race with a Camaro saw Liddell and Davis win CTSC GS in 2015. Photo courtesy of IMSA

“I’m certainly going to miss the H-pattern shifters and more production-based cars, but the GT4 class is where the motorsport world is heading, and I’m happy to see IMSA has followed suit. At its roots, the CTSC GS class still seems to be the same rough and tumble brawl of a race series that I’ve enjoyed so much in the first seven years of my career, and I’m extremely happy to be contending in it once again,” Bell said.

“The new Chevrolet Camaro GT4.R is a serious race car. It is lighter, more nimble, and even more engineered for the race track than the Z/28.R that Stevenson Motorsport won the GS Championship with in 2015. We know the team is up to the task, we know the new car is as solid as any we’ve raced, and I’m quite certain Robin (Liddell) and I will pair well together. While we have been teammates for seven years, we’ve never been season-long co-drivers. He and I both seem to like the car the same way and have similar feedback, so that will certainly streamline the tuning process.”

The Stevenson crew’s efforts are aided in large part by team manager Mike Johnson, who will pull his own unique double duty at COTA as he’ll call race strategies for both Liddell and Davis’ No. 57 Camaro GT4.R in the two-hour Continental Tire Challenge race, and the Aschenbach/Davis No. 57 Audi R8 LMS in the two-hour, 40-minute WeatherTech Championship race, which run Friday and Saturday, respectively. A further story on him is linked here via IMSA.com.

But there’s something right about Stevenson being back in a Camaro, as they look to add to an already solid start established by Blackdog for the new Camaro GT4.R.

Haas F1 driver Romain Grosjean to launch cookbook

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Haas Formula 1 driver Romain Grosjean may be one of the sport’s most promising talents on-track, but he also has a burning passion off it: cooking.

Grosjean may have been spent a good part of this year cooking his brakes, but you’ll now be able to cook bakes instead…

F1’s resident foodie is set to release a cookbook alongside wife Marion Jolles in the coming weeks, as announced on his Facebook page.

Grosjean currently sits 13th in the F1 drivers’ championship with 18 points to his name, helping Haas to match the points total from its debut season after just 10 races in 2017.

Mercedes F1 engine chief warns against underestimating Honda

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Mercedes Formula 1 engine chief Andy Cowell has warned against underestimating the threat of Honda despite its ongoing power unit struggles, tipping the Japanese manufacturer to bounce back in the near future.

Honda returned to F1 as a manufacturer in 2015, supplying V6 turbo power units to the McLaren team, but has struggled for either performance or reliability through that period.

The struggles have led McLaren – currently sat bottom of the constructors’ championship – to consider cutting ties for 2018 given how far adrift compared to the other three engine suppliers Honda has been.

Mercedes has been the benchmark for engine performance since the change in regulation for 2014, but Cowell feels that Honda could make up ground quickly, with the removal of the token system for 2017 helping performance to converge through the field.

“I think collectively we’ve helped with convergence in Formula 1 in the opening season, performance development through the year,” Cowell said.

“But then the opportunity to do a big change with Honda coming in, we all agreed that Honda could have that same opportunity to change everything in the first year and then the request came from manufacturers in addition to Honda saying ‘please can we take this crazy token table away because it’s bad for the sport?’

“It’s bad if somebody can’t train to get better and so we agreed, yeah, take the table away because it’s better for the sport because it means that you can innovate, you can introduce whatever you like.

“I think none of us should underestimate the technical prowess of Honda and of McLaren and I think my money is on that combination coming good and coming good pretty quickly. No pressure…”

Williams happy to ‘hold off’ on 2018 F1 driver decision

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Williams is happy to “hold off” on making a decision on its Formula 1 driver line-up for 2018 as it focuses on improving its on-track displays after a tough start to the season.

Williams currently fields Felipe Massa and Lance Stroll, a mix of experience and youth, but has failed to keep up with midfield front-runner Force India through the first half of the year.

Force India sits fourth in the constructors’ championship with more than double the points of Williams, who leads a tight-knit group down to Renault in eighth place, 15 points adrift.

While Stroll looks set to continue with Williams and Massa has hinted he may look to continue through to 2018 despite initially planning to retire at the end of last season, deputy team boss Claire Williams has confirmed that no decision about next year’s line-up will come any time soon.

“There’s a lot of talk already isn’t there, about drivers across the paddock. For us, we’ve decided we’re going to hold off a bit on our driver decision,” Williams said.

“We’ve got a fight on our hands on the race track at the moment and to be distracted by those kinds of conversations isn’t something that we want to be happening at the moment.

“[Force India’s] got a nice points haul on us at the moment we need to focus on, rather than anything else.”

Nico Rosberg visits Stanford University, considering study options

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2016 Formula 1 world champion Nico Rosberg is considering study options at Stanford University after visiting the college earlier this week as part of his tour around California.

Rosberg sensationally announced his retirement from F1 just five days after winning his maiden world title last November, wanting to spend more time with his young family.

The German has been enjoying his retirement, recently embarking on a tour of Silicon Valley and California that saw him hold meetings with electric car giant Tesla, among other companies.

In a video posted to his Twitter account on Sunday, Rosberg spoke warmly about a visit to Stanford, revealing that he is considering some study options in the near future at the historic institution.

Rosberg was previously offered a scholarship to study engineering at Imperial College London when he was younger, only to turn it down in order to embark on a racing career. He also reportedly holds the highest ever score on Williams’ engineering aptitude test.

Should Nico sign up to a course at Stanford, we imagine he’d take things one class at a time…