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.

IndyCar’s 2018 full-field grid nearing completion

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Following Wednesday’s confirmation of the all-Canadian tandem at Schmidt Peterson Motorsports, each of the eight full-time teams in the 2017 Verizon IndyCar Series season have announced at least one driver for 2018, leaving very few remaining question marks.

What stands confirmed is below:

CONFIRMED

  • Team Penske (3, Chevrolet): Josef Newgarden, Simon Pagenaud, Will Power
  • Chip Ganassi Racing (1, Honda): Scott Dixon
  • Andretti Autosport (4, Honda): Ryan Hunter-Reay, Alexander Rossi, Marco Andretti, Zach Veach
  • Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing (2, Honda): Graham Rahal, Takuma Sato
  • Schmidt Peterson Motorsports (2, Honda): James Hinchcliffe, Robert Wickens
  • Ed Carpenter Racing (2, Chevrolet): Spencer Pigot, Ed Carpenter (ovals)
  • A.J. Foyt Enterprises (1, Chevrolet): Tony Kanaan
  • Dale Coyne Racing (1, Honda): Sebastien Bourdais
  • Harding Racing (1, Chevrolet): Gabby Chaves

There are four additional drivers confirmed for selected races or an month of May program:

  • Team Penske (1, Chevrolet): Helio Castroneves
  • Andretti Autosport (1, Honda): Stefan Wilson
  • Calmels Sport with SPM (1, Honda): Tristan Gommendy
  • Team TBD (1, TBD): Kyle Kaiser

All told that’s 17 full-season driver and team combinations confirmed and four additional part-time programs, at least, that are set. Several of those driver/team combinations will have engineering and strategist changes, as well.

In a minor note since our last update at Sonoma, Marco Andretti confirmed he won’t run No. 27 next year. Of note, Bryan Herta served as Andretti’s race strategist this year, although the car he was an entrant on was Alexander Rossi’s No. 98 car. Herta will continue his relationship with Andretti Autosport again next season.

WHAT’S LEFT TO SORT? NOT MUCH

Elsewhere, there’s only a handful of remaining question marks as the series hits mid-October, a rarity from past years and an illustration of the urgency to fill seats to get as much preparation time in testing with the new 2018 Dallara universal aero kit as possible.

NBC Sports expects 2016 Indy Lights champion and 2017 IndyCar rookie-of-the-year Ed Jones to be confirmed soon as second driver in Dale Coyne Racing’s No. 19 Honda alongside Sebastien Bourdais, with team personnel and Bourdais both having indicated a preference in keeping the Dubai-based Brit for a second year.

NBC Sports also expects Jones’ successor as Indy Lights champion, Kyle Kaiser, to have his future announced shortly in terms of which team he’ll step up to IndyCar with. It would not be a surprise if Kaiser does graduate along with Juncos Racing, although Kaiser is known to have talked to multiple teams. The Mazda Motorsports scholarship nets him $1 million for a three-race program, including the 102nd Indianapolis 500, with the driver then needing to secure additional funding for further races, as Jones and Pigot both have each of the last two years.

The status of Brendon Hartley has now been thrown up as a slight question mark dependent on how his Formula 1 debut with Scuderia Toro Rosso goes at this weekend’s United States Grand Prix, and if Toro Rosso provides him a further race opportunity in one of the remaining three Grands Prix thereafter. Having been all-but-earmarked for Chip Ganassi Racing’s second seat in 2018, if an F1 offer comes, Hartley’s potential IndyCar bow could get delayed.

A McLaren-named entry competing either in the Indianapolis 500 or full-time seems further off than realistic for next year, McLaren’s Zak Brown told reporters on a teleconference this week. McLaren maintains an IndyCar technical presence though, via its McLaren Applied Technologies outfit.

What’s left then are the dominoes of whether Carlin’s IndyCar plans officially come to fruition as the team has gotten closer than it ever has to doing so, and who emerges in the second seats at A.J. Foyt Enterprises and Ed Carpenter Racing (road and street courses), respectively.

A number of young IndyCar veterans – Max Chilton, Charlie Kimball, Carlos Munoz and Conor Daly namely – are yet to land for 2018 and there’s no guarantee all four of them will be back in IndyCar next season.

There’s also a handful of young drivers, namely RC Enerson, Jack Harvey, Esteban Gutierrez, Santiago Urrutia, Zachary Claman DeMelo, Sage Karam and Matthew Brabham among others, who could well emerge in the frame for seats.

Gutierrez’s status seemed dependent on Mexico City being added to the 2018 calendar, and although the race still could be added, the fact neither is in place at this point doesn’t inspire as much confidence about his presence as a regular on the grid as it did earlier this summer.

All told, there’s not nearly that much to sort out as IndyCar’s grid for 2018 is looking very much close to set at this early stage of a long offseason.