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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.”

F1 Preview: 2018 Australian Grand Prix

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Save for two occasions, in 2006, and 2010, the Australian Grand Prix has served as the season-opening event for the FIA Formula 1 World Championship since 1996, and this weekend’s event will be the 21st time that the city of Melbourne has kicked off the Formula 1 campaign.

The 2018 season is the fifth one of the current hybrid power unit era, the second season of the current aero regulations, and the second under Liberty Media’s guidance.

Last year saw titans Mercedes AMG Petronas and Scuderia Ferrari duel for supremacy for most of the season before Mercedes distanced Ferrari late in the season to take the constructor’s title and the driver’s title, with Lewis Hamilton, who is now tied with Sebastian Vettel on four world championships apiece.

Four drivers on the grid have Formula 1 world championships to their name: Hamilton, Vettel, Kimi Raikkonen, and Fernando Alonso. Scuderia Toro Rosso’s Brendon Hartley also has a world championship to his name as a two-time titlist in the FIA World Endurance Championship.

So, what can viewers expect from the 2018 curtain-raiser in Australia? A handful of things to watch are below?

2018 Australian Grand Prix – Talking Points

Does Anyone Have Anything for Mercedes?

Only on one day during pre-season testing did a Mercedes driver lead the way – Lewis Hamilton was fastest on the final day of Week 1 at the Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya.

However, all indications were that was by design, with the team focusing the majority of the second week, if not the entire second week, on long runs with their W09 EQ Power+ chassis.

Such a decision is an ominous one, in that it indicates the team is very comfortable with the amount of speed in the car and did not see a need, or desire, to show their hand during testing.

With that in mind, the Mercedes duo of Hamilton and Valtteri Bottas may yet again have the best and fastest cars, and the team looks poised to potentially make it five constructor’s and driver’s championships in a row.

Ferrari and Red Bull Look to End Mercedes Reign

The biggest threats to Mercedes are undoubtedly Ferrari and Red Bull, the only other teams to win in 2017.

And both teams displayed a lot of pace during testing, particularly in the “one-lap speed” category. Ricciardo set a lap record around the Catalunya circuit during the second week, only for Vettel to supplant that mark later in the week. Teammate Kimi Raikkonen led the way during the final day of testing.

It is unknown how that pace will translate over the course of a race distance. Mercedes appeared to have an edge on both Ferrari and Red Bull over long runs and race simulations, but there is also a theory that neither Ferrari nor Red Bull had their true long-run form on display.

Still, if a team is going to knock off Mercedes, it will likely be either Ferrari or Red Bull.

McLaren on the Rebound?

Put simply, the previous three seasons for McLaren F1 Team were a bit of a disaster. Their partnership with Honda yielded point totals of 27 (2015), 76 (2016), and 30 (2017) in a three-year venture that was defined by poor reliability and underwhelming power.

The relationship hit a boiling point last year and both entities parted ways ahead of the 2018 season, with McLaren signing a new power unit deal with Renault.

Testing went better than in previous years, though the team continued to battle reliability problems. However, all issues appeared to be minor, needling issues rather than more significant, foundational problems, as the other Renault teams (Red Bull and Renault Sport F1 Team) had solid runs with few reliability issues.

The car does appear to have speed in it, so if the reliability problems are behind them, McLaren could be in for a rebound season.

Stuck in the Midfield Again

Formula 1’s battle amongst the midfield is set to be as fierce as ever as a host of a several teams have a chance at being “best of the rest.”

Sahara Force India has been the frontrunner from the the midfield teams each of the last two years, finishing fourth in the constructor’s title in both 2016 and 2017, though if the steady conflict between drivers Esteban Ocon and Sergio Perez continues through 2018, it could hamper their efforts significantly.

Renault Sport F1 Team and Haas F1 Team look to improve on their 2017 form, while Toro Rosso is in a new partnership with Honda power units…and has experienced a surprisingly smooth pre-season as Honda’s 2018 platform looks significantly better, with the team enjoying a solid run of testing with few, if any, reliability problems.

Williams Martini Racing and Alfa Romeo Sauber appear to be at the back of the pack entering the season, but both could battle for points finishes if those ahead of them falter.