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Penske vs. Acura now shifts to Penske with Acura for IMSA return

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The halcyon years of the American Le Mans Series, from 2006 through 2008, saw Team Penske’s last major factory effort with the Porsche RS Spyder in the LMP2 class debut the 2005 season finale and the full 2006 season, then witness Acura ramp up its efforts for a 2007 debut with the first iteration of the ARX chassis, the ARX-01a LMP2 car.

Much has changed since. The economic crisis of 2008 had a major impact into 2009 and by that year, the Penske and Acura factory efforts were out, and the ALMS needed to create a spec, lower cost prototype class called Prototype Challenge to keep its car count afloat.

A merger happened in 2014, bringing together ALMS and the GRAND-AM Rolex Series into the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship (then called the TUDOR United SportsCar Championship), and the late 2015 reveal of the new Daytona Prototype international (DPi) format promised a new rebirth for the top flight of prototype racing in North America.

That period has seen Cadillac, Mazda and Nissan debut DPi programs this year and with Acura’s fully fledged return in 2018 with Penske, it brings together the two past rivals in a united goal for overall glory, and an attempt to topple the existing manufacturers.

ST.PETERSBURG, FL – APRIL 4: The #6 LMP2 Penske Racing Porsche RS Spyder driven by Sascha Maassen and Patrick Long during practice for the American Le Mans Series Acura Sports Car Challenge of St. Petersburg on April 4, 2008 on the streets of St. Petersburg, Florida. (Photo by Darrell Ingham/Getty Images)

“Back then really the interest we had as Penske in getting involved wasn’t so much the P2 class, but it was Porsche was working towards a customer program at the time,” Team Penske president Tim Cindric told reporters on a Tuesday teleconference.

“What we were interested was competing towards overall wins… and we could compete against Audi for those overall wins. And that was before Acura got in. Once Acura got in, that raised the bar – before that, we just were P2 versus Zytek cars, in a privateer setting.

“We were fortunate to race against the Audis and I think that made it fun to try to understand when the underdog could compete. Once Acura got in, it was super competitive, with that second year. Unfortunately that type of racing, that class (at the time) fell apart.

“For us, we see three other manufacturers in. The DPis do allow the privateers to compete with P2 in WEC-type form. There’s a lot of competition. I’m really surprised that only one manufacturer (Cadillac) has won, but that will change as others catch up. For us, it’s not a slam dunk we’ll be winning races right in the beginning.”

LEXINGTON, OH – JULY 19: Timo Bernhard, drives the #7 Penske Racing Porsche RS Spyder during the American Le Mans Series Acura Sports Car Challenge on July 19, 2008 at the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course in Lexington, Ohio. (Photo by Chris McGrath/Getty Images)

Honda Performance Development Art St. Cyr backed up that assessment.

“That’s a great thing about working with Team Penske – there’s a uniform sense of purpose to win overall races,” he said.

“In P2, we had a P2 car that won overall victories. But in P2 we were about winning P2… then moving to P1 was everything we had, with the Muscle Milk Pickett days. It was about how could get stay in front.”

HPD’s recent decade of top flight sports car racing sees the new ARX-05, set to be developed in-house at HPD and based off the successful Oreca 07 chassis, comes after a period of four prior models that raced from 2007 through 2015.

The previous generation ARX-01 had a five-year life span from 2007 to 2011 with various iterations primarily in LMP2 spec and then a one-off LMP1 spec at the 2011 Mobil 1 Twelve Hours of Sebring – where ironically, it finished second to an Oreca-run privateer Peugeot 908 HDi FAP. The HPD ARX-03 achieved success in both LMP1 and LMP2 specifications, primarily with Muscle Milk Pickett in ALMS as mentioned and also with Tequila Patron ESM, Level 5 Motorsports and Starworks Motorsport (won the LMP2 title in the first FIA World Endurance Championship season of 2012), but the ARX-04b, a new LMP2 car developed by Wirth Research for the 2015 season, raced only once at that year’s Rolex 24 at Daytona before being tossed aside following significant weight and teething issues.

With the news officially released that the program is happening will come a summer and fall of preparation before the DPi car’s race debut at the 2018 Rolex 24 at Daytona. Details were sparse today, but here’s the bullet points from today’s call:

  • No drivers have yet been signed, nor was a timeline given for their reveal. But if we’re thinking logically, the Verizon IndyCar Series season ends in mid-September, and Roger Penske said at the Iowa weekend he decides on (or reveals) his lineup once a season is over. We’ll know by then whether Helio Castroneves has won his elusive first championship or not, and Juan Pablo Montoya’s excited Instagram post with the combined Penske and Acura logos today was as good of a confirmation of his expected role. Between current Acura sports car drivers and talented sports car veterans who may be available, there’s a lot of intrigue to come here.
  • Full testing begins next month. Cindric confirmed the first shakedown at Paul Ricard at the end of the month before the car is shipped Stateside, ahead of its Monterey reveal in mid-August. Cindric said the car he hopes will be on track by the end of August. St. Cyr also said the engine will be slightly different than its previous prototype run.
  • What does this mean for other Acura/HPD programs? St. Cyr wouldn’t entirely bite there but did tease there will be “some announcements in the near future.” Full factory support/branding from Acura to its pair of NSX GT3 teams, Michael Shank Racing and RealTime Racing, is expected to be drawn down at year’s end. He also said it was premature to talk about customer programs for the Acura DPi.
  • How does Penske balance Acura/HPD (sports cars), Chevrolet (IndyCar) and Ford (NASCAR)? Like always. “For us it’s old hat,” said Cindric, who described all the internal safeguards that are set up to preserve IP and keep a clear separation of church and state.
  • Does Petit Le Mans happen with a separate car? Possibly, maybe, potentially. Cindric wouldn’t rule out the potential of running a standard LMP2 spec car at this year’s Petit Le Mans but only if the preparation and testing goes well enough with the DPi. “We wouldn’t rule it out, but we’re a long way from confirming it or saying it would happen.”
MONTEREY, CA – OCTOBER 18: Ryan Briscoe driving the #5 LMP2 Penske Racing Porsche RS Spyderchases Franck Montagny driving the #26 LMP2 Andretti Green Racing Acura ARX-01B during the American Le Mans Series Monterey Sports Car Championship on October 18, 2008 at the Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca in Monterey, California. (Photo by Darrell Ingham/Getty Images)

Overall though today’s announcement brings to an end the saga over how long the return has been in the pipeline and concludes the waiting for the official news to drop.

“During this iteration of the Acura Motorsports programs, it’s been a three-step revival,” St. Cyr said. “It started with the TLX GT car, the NSX GT3 this year and now the DPi program we’re announcing today.

“It started really when the DPi formula was released, we started talking about this vehicle and making it part of Acura’s precision crafted message to align everything… and to have Acura Motorsports be the capital P of performance. Roger Penske being one of our largest Acura dealers created the synergy.”

Cindric added, “On behalf of Roger and everyone at Team Penske, we appreciate the confidence Acura and HPD have in our organization. Sports car racing is where our heritage began. We enjoy competing in it. We haven’t been since 2009.

“When the DPi formula was announced it looked to revive the prototype racing formula in the U.S. It was a natural fit to find the manufacturers in the future. We were interested from day one… now it’s happened. It’s a good format for us. It’ll be competitive and a good challenge for us.”

Bruni, Snow win GT poles for IMSA at Lime Rock

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A pair of first-time polesitters have the top spot for this weekend’s GT-only IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship Northeast Grand Prix from Lime Rock Park. Gianmaria Bruni has his first pole for Porsche while Madison Snow has his first pole of the season.

GT LE MANS

Just 0.535 of a second covered the four manufacturers and eight cars in GT Le Mans in qualifying, but up front, Gianmaria Bruni has his first pole as a Porsche factory driver.

The Italian, in only his third weekend as a factory GT driver and second ever at Lime Rock and sharing the No. 912 Porsche 911 RSR with Laurens Vanthoor, posted the ultimate pole time of 50.404 seconds around the 1.53-mile circuit.

“I’m very happy to do my first pole with Porsche, first qualifying. This team has taught me good things and gets the most out of it,” Bruni told IMSA Radio’s Shea Adam after the checkered flag. He’s the 23rd different GTLM polesitter in IMSA since the 2014 merger, this surprisingly his first pole in the series.

Richard Westbrook took the No. 67 Ford Chip Ganassi Racing Ford GT into second at 50.540 in the car he shares with Ryan Briscoe.

The No. 911 Porsche and No. 24 BMW M6 GTLM are third and fourth, with the pair of Corvettes next.

The No. 4 Corvette C7.R is back in action this week following its accident at the end of the Canadian Tire Motorsport Park. Per Corvette Racing, repairs to the car included: the entire front-right corner (components, bodywork), steering rack, diffuser, wing and changed a chassis tube due to a crease. There were no other cracks or damage to the frame. That car qualified fifth in the hands of Tommy Milner, who shares the car with Oliver Gavin. The pair won Corvette Racing’s 100th race as a team this race last year.

GT DAYTONA

After a run of seven manufacturers scoring pole positions in the first seven races in GTD, the streak was broken Friday at Lime Rock Park.

Not too far from its New Jersey base, the No. 48 Paul Miller Racing Lamborghini Huracán GT3 was the first car to score a second pole this year, this time in the hands of Madison Snow. Snow joins Bryan Sellers (Long Beach) as polesitters for this car this season, and this at least keeps the streak of different drivers alive.

The Nos. 54 CORE autosport and No. 28 Alegra Motorsports Porsche 911 GT3 R in the hands of Colin Braun and Patrick Long were next. Snow’s 52.508 best lap edged Braun’s 52.699 and Long’s 52.836, with Jack Hawksworth best of the 3GT Racing Lexus RC F GT3 brigade in fourth and Jens Klingmann taking the No. 96 Turner Motorsport BMW M6 GT3 into fifth.

The top 15 of the 17 cars in GTD were separated by only 0.992 of a second around the 1.53-mile bullring.

The two-hour, 40-minute race runs late Saturday afternoon, from 3:05 to 5:45 p.m. ET.

Mid-Ohio, Honda Racing go galactic for 2017 at-track camping theme

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Honda Racing will channel a galactic theme for this year’s camping festivities at the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course, a popular camping venue on the Verizon IndyCar Series calendar.

This marks the third year of a contest for best campground site, with various Honda Indy 200 gifts on offer. The theme name this year is “May the G-Forces Be With You,” and the hashtag is #CampingWithHonda.  Last year’s was a “Christmas in July” theme, complete with Santa Claus. The full release from the track is linked here.

As this year’s event alludes to a very popular galactic film series in all but name, it will see a number of participants in the weekend festivities by to judge the campsites at the track – potentially in character!

Graham Rahal, driver of the No. 15 Steak ‘n Shake Honda for Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing in IndyCar, will visit the sites Saturday after qualifying to choose the winners. He did so last year as well.

Photo: PWC

Others, such as last year’s Mid-Ohio race winner Simon Pagenaud and RealTime Racing Acura NSX GT3 factory driver in Pirelli World Challenge, Ryan Eversley (right), are expected to attend as well – though whether as themselves or potentially in a special character remains to be seen.

“It’s always a thrill and a special part of the Mid-Ohio weekend to take part in Honda Racing fun festivities like ‘May the G-Forces Be With You,'” Eversley told NBC Sports; the Atlanta native finished second in the second PWC GT race here last year in the previous generation TLX-GT, in one of his best drives of the season. “These guys always know how to cook up some fun activities and so if there’s an opportunity to dress up, have fun and play along with it, I’m down!”

Photo: IndyCar

Pagenaud, who was a longtime member of the Honda and Acura family before his move to Team Penske’s Chevrolet-powered, IndyCar program (right), added, “For me, as a fan, this film series is just the best. I love the battle between the light and dark side of the force, because I feel like we can all identify with that. I try to channel the force when I’m in my race car, so this will be a really fun weekend in Mid-Ohio.

“I plan to bring something to show my pride at the track, but I won’t ruin the surprise for you guys in advance!”

Expect similar characters to be present on site on Saturday evening. There’s also going to be a bonfire, live band (Columbus group MidLife Crisis) and s’mores, plus branded lighted batons which should display well at the bonfire on Saturday.

And for James Hinchcliffe, another Honda driver who is no stranger to having fun, he’s also part of the buildup to this event, as evidenced by the event teaser below.

Wehrlein nonplussed by Sauber-Honda speculation

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Pascal Wehrlein is not paying any attention to speculation that Sauber’s planned Formula 1 engine deal with Honda for 2018 could be on the rocks, saying his future remains open as he focuses on his current duties with the team.

Mercedes junior Wehrlein was placed at Sauber for 2017, and led the team to its first points finish of the year at the Spanish Grand Prix in May.

Sauber had been given a boost two weeks earlier when it announced a deal to become Honda’s second customer team for 2018, including technical and financial support.

However, the deal was put in doubt following Sauber CEO and team principal Monisha Kaltenborn’s departure, leading to speculation that it had not been finalized.

Kaltenborn’s replacement Frederic Vasseur has made it a priority to resolve the matter, but it has made for a bleak outlook at Hinwil for the future.

With the 2018 driver market beginning to stir, Wehrlein has stressed he is not yet thinking about next season, nor is he paying any attention to the speculation about Sauber’s deal with Honda.

“I have no idea what is happening next year. Of course, I have heard all these rumors as well,” Wehrlein told the official F1 website.

“I cannot influence any of these things, so why worry about them? Whatever rumors there are in the air, it is no distraction for me – that is the bottom line.

“I have a contract for this season so I am only focusing on this year. Decisions are made by others and I am only here to drive, to perform as well as I can.

“Of course I want to see Sauber do well. They have the potential and have already been in good positions in the past and I want them to get back there. How and when? That is on another page.”

Wehrlein expressed his confidence in Vasseur’s leadership, although he expects the team to shift focus to its 2018 plans.

“I do have expectations of Fred and the team. I don’t know how fast Fred can change things or how he can change them, but we now have one race left before the summer shut down,” Wehrlein said.

“In the second half of the season the team will focus on next year, so I don’t think you will see his touch too much this year. So let’s see what we can still do with the tools that we have right now.

“I really respect Fred. I used to work with him in DTM. He had a team when I drove there in 2015. He has so much experience in motorsport and in many other ventures outside racing.

“He is a very successful man. He could help Sauber. He could be very good for the team.”

Keeping Grosjean, Magnussen for 2018 ‘a given’ in Gene Haas’ eyes

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Gene Haas is planning to field an unchanged line-up for his Formula 1 team in 2018, believing it to be “a given” that Romain Grosjean and Kevin Magnussen will continue beyond the end of the season.

NASCAR team co-owner Haas took his eponymous F1 operation onto the grid in 2016, pairing Grosjean with Esteban Gutierrez.

While Grosjean scored a fifth-place finish in Haas F1 Team’s second race and picked up 29 points across the course of the season, Gutierrez failed to record a single top-10 result.

The Mexican was replaced by Magnussen for 2017, with the Dane taking 11 points through the first 10 races of the season.

Despite the fluidity of the driver market for 2018, Haas revealed in an interview with the official F1 website that the team is planning to race with Grosjean and Magnussen together once again next year.

“We will run with the same drivers that we have this year again next year. That is a given,” Haas said.

“And given the other continuity aspects, we should be better racers next season.”

Haas had been tipped to take on a Ferrari junior such as Antonio Giovinazzi or Charles Leclerc for 2018 given its technical ties to the Italian marque.

Grosjean is understood to be a target for Renault should it miss out on re-signing Fernando Alonso, while Magnussen penned a multi-year deal upon arrival at Haas at the start of the season.

Reflecting on Magnussen’s contribution, Haas believes the team has benefitted from his greater race performance that has allowed it to match its debut season points total in just 10 races in 2017.

“Esteban was a good driver. He was as fast as Romain in practice, but I think that Kevin has an edge in terms of race experience,” Haas said.

“He can score points and that was the key for bringing him on board. Kevin can grab points and Romain can too.

“We now have 29 points. Last year around this time we also had 29 points, but did not score for the rest of the season.

“So now if we can score another 29 points by Abu Dhabi, that would be a great position.”