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From century mark to home race: Hinch hits Toronto poised for success

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This weekend’s Honda Indy Toronto (Sunday, 3 p.m. ET, CNBC) isn’t James Hinchcliffe’s 100th Verizon IndyCar Series start – that came last weekend at Iowa Speedway – but it is an excellent opportunity for him to pick up an elusive first win on home soil.

Consider street courses have been where Hinchcliffe and the Schmidt Peterson Motorsports team has excelled most this season and you have a recipe, in theory, for more success.

Hinchcliffe has started third, fourth and fifth in the four previous street races this year and has led all 47 laps he has this season in three of those four.

He could well have won at St. Petersburg if not for an ill-timed yellow flag, did win at Long Beach and then rebounded from a first-lap spin at Detroit race one to bank his second podium of the year there.

A nice third place last year, in third courtesy of both pace (qualified sixth) and luck (got a lucky yellow) saw him on the podium for the first time in his home race and only fueled the desire to go two better this time around.

“Obviously this is on the top of the list of races we want to win,” Hinchcliffe told NBC Sports. “We got a bit of a taste of it last year, which made us that much hungrier. In the past we had horrible luck. Last year wasn’t just pure pace; we did have a lucky yellow.

“Street courses have been our strength by a significant margin this year. We haven’t been outside top five in quals, and St. Pete would have been a podium if not for the yellow. This track is very different to those. Always has been. Being good at Detroit doesn’t necessarily mean you’re good here. Hopefully you have a good handle on it.”

Hinchcliffe takes 2016 Toronto checkered flag. Photo: IndyCar

Hinchcliffe’s season overall has been plagued by bad luck and has seen him drop from a top-three points position down to 12th entering the weekend, which isn’t entirely representative of his pace.

Despite an 8.6 average grid position, Hinchcliffe only has five top-10 results all year – and just two of them in the last eight races after opening ninth, first and sixth out of the gate.

One of them came last week at Iowa, in 10th, which wasn’t bad and something of a nice course correction after getting taken out at both Indianapolis and Texas and having a late race mechanical issue at Detroit race two.

It also featured a highlight reel moment as Hinchcliffe split the gap in a three-wide move getting around Tony Kanaan and Charlie Kimball, a pair of Chip Ganassi Racing Teams drivers. On reflection, Hinchcliffe said the hair-raising move might not have been the smartest.

“It wasn’t my smartest move!” Hinchcliffe laughed. “I tried to make it happen for a while. But big credit to Charlie, who gave us both room.

“I’d been stuck behind TK, and it was kind of a desperate move, but I was lucky we got out of it. It’s one of those things where you chalk it up to experience and move on all good!”

Understandably, the home race for Hinchcliffe packs a year’s worth of pressure and anticipation to perform ahead of his home fans. But just as Hinchcliffe was drawn to the series as a young fan at the Honda Indy in the 1990s, he fully understands the magnitude of being the hometown hero in the motorsports mad country of Canada, and he embraces how important it is to give back.

“Luckily I’m far enough into my career and have done it enough times that I know what’s expected of me, and how to handle the situation in general,” he said. “It’s always exciting to come home. This race made me fall in love with IndyCar and for me it’s a privilege to race in it.

“I think what works really well is having a good team of people. I’m not good at saying no – I want to do everything – so between the team and Fi (Hewitson, Hinchcliffe’s assistant) we have a good support system that helps me out and keeps us on schedule.”

Hinchcliffe’s philanthropic work is also on display during the Honda Indy weekend thanks to his Honda Canada relationship and its partnership with the Make-A-Wish Foundation in Canada. Hinchcliffe explains:

“I get to do a lot of different things throughout this week. But the thing I look forward to the most is with Honda Canada and Make-A-Wish. We do a lot for the organization, we bring a group of kids to the track, and I spend some time with them.

“It’s always the most rewarding thing. There’s no group you’ll get more inspiration from. It’s such a special thing to be a part of that, and give a bit back to those kids

“What we do with the (firesuit) is we put it up at the Honda world exhibit, and then the race suit I race with, that one gets auctioned off. You do every bit you can to help the cause.”

This will be Hinchcliffe’s seventh start in the Honda Indy after past runnings there in Formula Atlantic and Indy Lights previously. His first Honda Indy race, in 2011, came in his rookie season where there was the beginning of the changing of the guard among Canadians – NBCSN IndyCar analyst Paul Tracy made his final Toronto start and Alex Tagliani made it three Canadians in the field.

That season stands out as one of Hinchcliffe’s ultimate highlights in his 100-start career, because of the magnitude of what it meant going forward to him.

“Certainly winning rookie-of-the-year in 2011 is one of the highlights of my career,” he reflected. “You only get one shot at that, and we missed St. Pete, and we weren’t sure if we’d make it to Brazil and Japan. Both were last-minute deals.

“But we got the result the last race of the season. That was a big rookie class (JR Hildebrand, Charlie Kimball, Ana Beatriz, James Jakes, Sebastian Saavedra). There five other full-time guys. It was a huge achievement.”

Back to this year, Hinchcliffe is confident the luck will turn for the No. 5 Arrow Electronics Schmidt Peterson Motorsports Honda as it heads into the final six races of 2017.

“If we keep doing what we’re doing, and not to try do more, or engineer ourselves out of a good place past what we’re capable of doing; we should get these results. We’d done pretty well all season. The results should come back. We didn’t have anything go wrong at Iowa… so it’s nice to not have that hanging over our heads. Keep executing on Sundays and we’ll be back.”

Mid-Ohio returns to IMSA schedule in May 2018

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LEXINGTON, Ohio – The Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course will make its return to the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship calendar in 2018, marking the first time Mid-Ohio has been part of an IMSA calendar since the 2014 merger that brought together the GRAND-AM Rolex Series and American Le Mans Series.

Mid-Ohio’s return to the calendar will occur in May 4-6, 2018, and will serve as the venerable Lexington, Ohio permanent road course’s kickoff to its new season.

It’s been since 2013 when GRAND-AM last competed there and 2012 when ALMS did, and from 2007 through 2012 ALMS was always on the same weekend as the Verizon IndyCar Series raced at the track.

More to follow…

Acura moving ahead to solidify NSX GT3 customers in 2018

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LEXINGTON, Ohio – Acura Motorsports is moving ahead with plans to get its first NSX GT3 customers to race in North America, as well as worldwide, following Thursday’s formal confirmation of the manufacturer announcing it will sell the NSX GT3.

The two teams who have developed and run the car this year, Michael Shank Racing (IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship GT Daytona class) and RealTime Racing (Pirelli World Challenge GT class) had team principals Shank and Peter Cunningham on hand today at Mid-Ohio to describe the work they’ve done in the process of getting the car ready for customers in 2018.

Shank highlighted the customer service performed by Honda Performance Development when he ran a Honda-powered Ligier JS P2 prototype in IMSA in 2015 and 2016.

The media availability this morning at the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course stopped short of confirming both teams will continue their own programs with the NSX GT3 next year, which would be customer-based and not factory as they are this year. That being said, both teams are working with Acura and HPD as they develop their 2018 programs.

Steve Eriksen, vice president and COO, Honda Performance Development, updated the production process in terms of getting NSX GT3s delivered to prospective customers.

“The production timeline and development was moved forward well ahead of Thursday’s announcement,” Eriksen told NBC Sports.

“That was done on purpose; the production was done well in advance to respond quickly when we get inquiries. The goal now is to move from interested parties to serious parties.”

Eriksen confirmed all four existing chassis, plus spares, run by Shank and RealTime this year are owned by HPD. It will be up to HPD to determine the path forward for those chassis after the respective seasons conclude.

For IMSA, the season finale is at Petit Le Mans on October 7 at Road Atlanta, and PWC’s last event of the year is a week later with the eight-hour SRO Intercontinental Challenge on October 15 at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca in Monterey.

Today’s media availability came a day after Acura confirmed the car will be available for sale worldwide at a price of €465,000 ($545,000).

This occurs after a year where there’s been more than 50,000-miles of on-track development between the two teams.

Shank has already delivered the car its first two wins in its inaugural season of IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship competition. The Pataskala, Ohio-based team is working to figure out its 2018 plans, with Shank preferring to focus on his sports car component first before adding any potential IndyCar program.

Here’s slightly more info about that from the release:

The NSX GT3 is eligible to race in more than two dozen FIA-sanctioned racing series around the world, including:

  • The Pirelli World Challenge and WeatherTech SportsCar Championship series in North America
  • The Blancpain GT Series and 24 Hours Nurburgring in Europe
  • The Blancpain GT Series Asia and GT Asia Series
  • The Super GT GT300 class in Japan
  • The Australian GT Championship
  • The Intercontinental GT Challenge

Additional options and complete customer support, including parts and service, training and engineering services are available.  Orders for the NSX GT3 are being taken now by HPD, responsible for sales in North America, at AcuraClientRacing.com.  JAS Motorsport is responsible for NSX GT3 sales in Europe, the Middle East and Asia, excluding Japan.  MUGEN is responsible for sales in Japan.

Pagenaud paces Mid-Ohio opening practice

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LEXINGTON, Ohio – Defending Verizon IndyCar Series and Honda Indy 200 champion Simon Pagenaud paced opening practice for this year’s occasion, posting a quick time of 1:04.9079 at the 2.258-mile Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course.

Pagenaud, in the No. 1 Menards Team Penske Chevrolet, sits third in this year’s championship with 404 points. Interestingly his only win this year has come on the 1-mile Phoenix International Raceway back in April.

Graham Rahal, the 2015 Mid-Ohio winner, was second in the session in the No. 15 Steak ‘n Shake Honda for Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing at 1:04.922. Marco Andretti made it into third in his No. 27 Andretti Autosport Honda at 1:04.9814.

The top nine drivers down to Scott Dixon in ninth were separated by only 0.3241 of a second and all 21 drivers bar JR Hildebrand were within one second.

Other than a near miss when Helio Castroneves almost hit Esteban Gutierrez exiting the Keyhole, there were no issues in the session and no red flags.

Second practice runs from 2:15 to 3 p.m. ET and local time.

Times are below.

Toyota ‘sad and disappointed’ by Porsche’s LMP1 exit

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Toyota president Akio Toyoda says he is “sad and disappointed” that Porsche will be ending its LMP1 program at the end of the year, leaving the Japanese marque as the sole manufacturer in the FIA World Endurance Championship’s premier class.

Porsche announced early on Friday that it would be pulling the plug on its LMP1 operation following this year’s season finale in Bahrain, switching focus to Formula E, where it will race from 2019.

Toyota and Porsche have battled for top honors in the WEC since 2014, leaving Toyoda with a heavy heart after hearing the news.

“I felt that it was very unfortunate when I heard that Porsche decided to withdraw from the LMP1 category of the WEC racing series,” Toyoda said in a statement.

“At last year’s 24 Hours of Le Mans race, we were honored that Porsche considered Toyota as a rival. It was a great battle as we fought against each other for victory.

“Looking towards this year’s series, we aimed to rise to and even surpass Porsche’s challenge. Those thoughts drove us to work harder and put forth our best efforts in realizing new technologies and skills.

“At this year’s Le Mans, I again had the opportunity to meet and talk with Dr. Porsche. He told me that, much like us, his company participates in motorsport to enhance its production cars. As a carmaker that has been doing such for a very long time, Porsche deserves a great deal of respect.

“I feel very sad and disappointed that we will no longer be able to pit our technologies against such a company on the same battleground next year.

“However, the fight is not yet over. We will continue to battle with all our strength in the remaining five races of this year.

“Let’s make it an amazing competition that will remain in the hearts of the teams as well as of the fans.

“I am full of gratitude to Porsche, but I will save my thanks for when the season is over. At that time, I wonder which of us will be congratulating the other.

“Let’s look forward to that moment as we continue to fight. To everyone at Porsche, we’ll see you on the track!”