Photo courtesy United Autosports

Rayhall: One that got away in Austria

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Editor’s note: Sean Rayhall, one of America’s rising driving talents, will file a series of blogs throughout the year chronicling his season in the European Le Mans Series, co-driving with John Falb at Zak Brown and Richard Dean’s United Autosports team in its Ligier JS P3. His third blog recaps a tough end to what had been a winning weekend in Austria, before a post-race penalty was assessed (previous blogs are linked here; Silverstone, Le Mans). 

The Red Bull Ring weekend for us came at a good time, to get back in a rhythm after I’d had quite a busy few weeks of travel leading into it. Between testing at Spa, coaching at Mont-Tremblant and resting up when I could it was good to have a nice flight back overseas to Austria on the Thursday before Round 3 of the ELMS season.

We felt really positive about our chances going into the weekend with how both the team and us as drivers performed separately last year, so we figured putting the two together could work out nicely for us.

Free practices didn’t go too much as planned, as we were a bit off. We were running a few things differently on our car and we were struggling to achieve the ultimate pace on new tires to qualify up front, although on old tires our pace was mega.

Photo courtesy United Autosports

My engineer “G-Baby” (Gary Robertshaw) was pretty grumpy at this point and to be completely honest, so was I. But what followed next was almost magical because of how rarely you see this happen.

Gary dug deep and worked incredibly hard to do what he did, to get us the pace in qualifying. Going in, he looked at me and said, “Alright, we are changing everything. It’s going to be better and you’re just going to have to drive whatever it is.”

From a driver’s eyes, this is both motivating and concerning. I was literally briefed in the car by radio five minutes before qualifying on how I was going to have to brake differently. That being said, long story short, throwing the kitchen sink at it worked and we qualified sixth, within a few tenths of the other Ligiers.

At race time I wasn’t sure what our race pace was going to be like, so I knew I needed to get to the front and keep as many people behind me as possible to secure a good race for us.

So launching flat out on the start going up the hill, everyone hugged the inside and I went “high side and handsome” to get us into P3 by Turn 3. As this is such a short track, you need to make positions up quickly before a lap gets away from you.

A few laps later we made the pass for P2 coming out of Turn 4, and we were on a mission. About 35 minutes into the first stint a GTE car came back on track in front of me, which caused me to completely flat spot the right front tire I had to race on till the end of my second stint.

This took a lot of patience because I knew I would give up P2, but I also knew that I had to nurse this tire for another hour and a half. So we hit a bad bit of traffic and (Giorgio) Mondini got by as I settled into P3 for the rest of my stints.

John got in the car on a mission and was chasing down the leader with new tires, and I’d have to say it was one of the best drives of his life.

Win celebrations were there at first, but were short-lived. Photo courtesy United Autosports

He got to the leader and it was a battle for about 45 minutes before the driver in the No. 11 Eurointernational car cracked under pressure and made contact with a lapped car. We weren’t home free yet, as we were assessed a drive through penalty for track limit violations as John was avoiding a GTE car. Somehow after serving the penalty we still came out on track 2.5 seconds ahead of second. And somehow, we were safe to bring it home and grab the win. Talk about a nail-biter weekend and an emotional roller coaster!

The initial post-victory celebrations before penalty. Photo courtesy United Autosports

We had a great afternoon getting our belongings and trophies, had a drink with the team, and then went to our favorite Italian man in Austria’s place for some pizza and a bottle of his famous Orange melon Liquor to take back to Vienna with us. Antonino was perhaps the oddest but funniest man we met it Austria. By far, John Falb, Scott Andrews, and I had the best dinner out of everyone from the track that night!

About an hour into the car drive back to Vienna, I received a phone call informing us we had been penalized for getting to 80 kph two seconds too late (failing to reduce enough speed), and they had given us a post-race penalty of 25 seconds. That gave the win away and put us in second place. To be honest, these were two penalties that we never gained time from, would never have been race deciding, that were allowed to decide our race for us.

Unfortunately, that’s racing and we will just have to work had enough to be able to handle 50 seconds in penalties at Paul Ricard – but ideally, not receive any further penalties assessed.

This is the challenge though and it’s up to us how we rise above it between John, myself, “G-Baby” and the entire United Autosports team, who again put us in a position to win. And the team still did get one win – our guys in the LMP2 car, Filipe, Will and Hugo, won the race overall in their Ligier! Congrats to them.

Thanks for reading guys! Will let you know how the next one goes!

MRTI: New oval test awaits Indy Lights, Pro Mazda in Gateway

Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography
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An unknown variable to two of the three Mazda Road to Indy presented by Cooper Tires series comes with this weekend’s races at Gateway Motorsports Park, the first and only oval for the Pro Mazda Championship Presented by Cooper Tires and the third oval for the Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires this season (this race airs August 28 at noon ET on NBCSN).

NEW TRACK ON TAP

The only running for these two series here has been testing, first on the old surface earlier this year and then on the repaved surface a couple weeks ago.

Indy Lights has been to Gateway with both of its prior two iterations, under the Indy Pro Series nomenclature in 2002 and 2003 (won by Ryan Hampton in 2002 and Jeff Simmons in 2003) and four times before that under the old Indy Lights banner in 1997, 1998, 2000 and 2001.

Those winners included Lee Bentham (now Ed Carpenter’s spotter and the Ed Carpenter Racing driver coach), Shigeaki Hattori, now NBCSN IndyCar analyst Townsend Bell and the late Dan Wheldon, respectively.

Bell holds both the qualifying and race lap records at Gateway, 157.205 mph and 28.625 seconds (qualifying) and 157.043 mph and 29.113 seconds (race), set in 2000, but those records should be smashed on the repaved track and with the new car this weekend.

Pro Mazda makes its debut at the track this weekend with a 55-lap race. Indy Lights will go 75 laps around Gateway. Both races are Saturday evening, at 4:55 p.m. and 6 p.m. CT and local time.

TITLE TILT BREAKDOWN

Kyle Kaiser has chance to win Indy Lights title in Gateway. Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography

As the series heads into Gateway, the championship battle could end in one series while it’s all poised to continue in another one.

In Indy Lights, Kyle Kaiser of Juncos Racing had a nightmare weekend at the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course but even so, is well-positioned to lock up this year’s title and the $1 million Mazda Motorsports Advancement Scholarship that goes with it. He has a 42-point lead over both Colton Herta and Santiago Urrutia, 297-255, and will clinch the championship with one race still to go at Watkins Glen provided he leaves Gateway with a 34-point lead.

The maximum swing in points in a 15-car grid is 27 points from first to last, if a driver secures the maximum 33 points (30 for winning with one bonus point apiece for pole, most laps led, and fastest race lap) and the 15th-place finisher scores six points.

A top-five finish for Kaiser will ensure he has at least a 26-point lead over the field, regardless of what others do – he’d have 314 points and the most anyone else could get with the maximum would be 288. So, the odds still remain in his favor barring some extraordinary events.

If Kaiser does clinch this weekend, he’ll be the first to do so in Indy Lights prior to the season finale since Josef Newgarden in 2011, who did so by starting at Kentucky in that year’s penultimate race – he finished second to Stefan Wilson that day. Tristan Vautier and Sage Karam (Fontana), Gabby Chaves (Sonoma), Spencer Pigot and Ed Jones (Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca) have all won the last five titles at the last race of the year, all in California.

Herta and Urrutia’s tie for second (255 points) sees them in a tightly bunched six-way battle for the runner-up spot. With Matheus Leist (249), Zachary Claman De Melo (243), Nico Jamin (242) and Aaron Telitz (233) could all stake their claim for second.

Anthony Martin leads Victory Franzoni at Mid-Ohio. Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography

Quite by contrast, Anthony Martin leads Victor Franzoni by only four points in Pro Mazda (259-255) and the battle between the Cape Motorsports and Juncos Racing driver figures to rage over the final three races. Pro Mazda has the oval this week, then two races at Watkins Glen to sort out that battle.

John Doonan, director of motorsports for Mazda North American Operations, sized up how the MRTI season has gone to date as the series heads into its final two weekends.

“You have ebbs and flows in the season. All three championships are far from being decided,” Doonan told NBC Sports. “The competition level is so intense. The new Tatuus USF-17 has woken some people up internationally as an option.

“Meanwhile I was saying to someone not long ago, the Pro Mazda car is 13 years old and the car has remained relevant that long. To see that car have a sweet swan song with two guys battling out for the title in this car has been great to witness.

“Indy Lights has been ridiculous too. Kaiser has a lengthy points lead, but it’s not done yet. With an oval and Watkins, with multiple races, it’ll be a battle down to the end.”

LOOKING BACK AT RECENT OVALS

Matheus Leist poses at the yard of bricks at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography

Indy Lights has its third oval this season and Leist, who hadn’t driven on an oval until this season but has instantly clicked with Carlin’s engineering team, somehow has the chance to sweep all three of them. The Brazilian teenager dominated at the Freedom 100 in Indianapolis and continued his midsummer run of form with a win from 10th on the grid at his first short oval in Iowa.

Looking back to last year, Kaiser won his first Indy Lights race on the Phoenix 1-mile oval, a track that’s been recently repaved, and a track he thinks will provide a proper comparison to Gateway. Otherwise it was Dean Stoneman (Andretti Autosport, Indianapolis) and Felix Serralles (Carlin, Iowa) who won last year.

In 2015, the first year of the Dallara IL-15 Mazda, there were also three winners in three ovals: Jack Harvey (Schmidt Peterson Motorsports, Indianapolis), Serralles (Belardi Auto Racing, Milwaukee) and Max Chilton (Carlin, Iowa).

Pro Mazda has not raced on an oval since Lucas Oil Raceway in May 2016, Pato O’Ward delivering the win for Team Pelfrey in dominant fashion. Weiron Tan swept the two Pro Mazda races in 2015 for Andretti Autosport at Lucas Oil Raceway and Iowa.

It’s been since 2014, when Spencer Pigot won for Juncos at Milwaukee, that Pro Mazda last raced on a track one mile or longer. Lucas Oil Raceway and Iowa are both under one mile. For the car that launched into then-Star Mazda in 2004, this race at the 1.25-mile Gateway track is the longest oval this car has ever raced on.

WHATEVER FLOATS YOUR BOAT

DAYTONA BEACH, FL – JANUARY 12: Chad Boat, driver of the #84 Billy Boat Motorsports Chevrolet, stands in the garage area during NASCAR Preseason Thunder at Daytona International Speedway on January 12, 2014 in Daytona Beach, Florida. (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/NASCAR via Getty Images)

Chad Boat, in a fourth Belardi Auto Racing entry, will at long last make his Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires race debut. He was meant to at the series’ last short oval race in Iowa but was ruled out, not medically cleared after an accident earlier that week.

Boat’s presence in the field makes it a 15-car Indy Lights field, which in turn opens up the option – however slim – that if Kaiser was to finish last and Urrutia, one of Boat’s three Belardi teammates, won and scored maximum points, could close the 42-point gap down to 15 points leaving Gateway.

For Boat, the 25-year-old son of past IndyCar veteran Billy Boat, the goal will be to gain experience as a short track, dirt track and part-time NASCAR veteran making a welcome entry into the series. He has tested at Gateway in advance of his debut.

While Boat increases the Indy Lights field by one, the Pro Mazda grid dips from 14 its last race at Mid-Ohio down to 10 cars.

IMSA: Michelin GT Challenge provides second GT-only showcase in ’17

Photo courtesy of IMSA
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Three race weekends remain in the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship season, but not three races for all four of its classes.

While the Prototype and Prototype Challenge classes are off until Monterey and Road Atlanta, respectively, this weekend’s two-hour, 40-minute Michelin GT Challenge at VIRginia International Raceway provides the GT Le Mans and GT Daytona their second of two GT-only standalone showcase events this season (Sunday, 1:30 p.m. ET).

Like last race at Road America, variety has been the spice of life among GTLM winners. Risi Competizione, Porsche North America and Corvette Racing have won at VIR the last three years with the No. 62 Ferrari F458 Italia, No. 911 Porsche 911 RSR and No. 3 Corvette C7.R, respectively.

Each of those three car numbers is somewhat intriguing to note this weekend for different reasons.

Photo: Risi Competizione

Risi’s No. 62 Ferrari 488 GTE is back after a several-race hiatus, the team having withdrawn temporarily after an expensive, crash-laden first half of the season through Le Mans. Out of the championship and with nothing to lose, the capable duo of Toni Vilander and Giancarlo Fisichella can properly play spoiler.

Engineer Rick Mayer describes the challenge of picking the best Michelin tire compound for VIR depending on the temperatures: “Michelin tire selection might come into play here as the track is dark and if its sunny will get very hot, maybe favoring one tire compound over another. All GTLMs have Michelin options that span the temperature window. Predicting weather and the best tire compound could be important if the track temperature is variable.”

The No. 911 Porsche, driven this year by Patrick Pilet and Dirk Werner, remains on the fringe of title contention in GTLM at 22 points back in fifth place and look to complete a sweep of the two GT-only races this year, having delivered the new mid-engined car’s first overall win at Lime Rock Park a month ago.

“I have fond memories of this storied racetrack deep in the heart of America. In 2015, we celebrated one-two finish there with Porsche. It’s an old school circuit with many fast curves where you can’t afford to make one mistake. If you end up on the grass, you might as well drive straight back to the pits to get the radiator cleaned,” Pilet said.

Meanwhile it’s No. 3 Corvette C7.R of Antonio Garcia and Jan Magnussen that, having weathered the storm of a few tough races where the Corvette has not had the Balance of Performance in its favor, maintains the points lead and looks for an encore of its win here last year. Magnussen has matched Garcia as one of the series’ best GT drivers really since this race last year. With Corvette having been given a bit of BoP help this weekend (a 0.5 mm air restrictor increase and an increased fuel flow restrictor), it should help the team get back to its usual race winning contention.

Two sets of pairings – Dirk Mueller and Joey Hand (No. 66 Ford Chip Ganassi Racing Ford GT) and Bill Auberlen and Alexander Sims (No. 25 BMW Team RLL BMW M6 GTLM) – remain within striking distance in points at eight and nine points back (239-231-230) of the lead. The second Ford pairing of Ryan Briscoe and Richard Westbrook needs a bit more help at 14 points back.

Consistency has kept the Alessandro Balzan and Christina Nielsen (No. 63 Scuderia Corsa Ferrari 488 GT3) pairing atop the GT Daytona charts despite not winning a race yet this year. At 15 points clear (254-239) of closest rivals Jeroen Bleekemolen and Ben Keating (No. 33 Riley Motorsports-Team AMG Mercedes AMG-GT3), it’d take a poor finish in the 16-car GTD class to see them lose their grip.

Paul Miller Racing won this race last year, the first and thus far only IMSA win for the Lamborghini Huracán GT3 in the hands of Bryan Sellers and Madison Snow, but its post-qualifying technical violation has all but killed any championship hopes here.

Elsewhere Patrick Long is back alongside Daniel Morad in Alegra Motorsports’ No. 28 Porsche 911 GT3 R, as he was at Lime Rock, while the WeatherTech team continues with its Porsche for a second straight race, 3GT Racing keeps its revised Road America lineups, Michael Shank Racing keeps its revised Road America liveries (albeit with a new frame needed to replace the damaged No. 93 Acura NSX GT3 after accident) and Lone Star Racing continues with its Mercedes-AMG GT3, hoping to start its second race after being unable to with various mechanical niggles at Road America.

Photo courtesy of IMSA

“The layout at VIR is an excellent track that makes you feel like you’re really driving somewhere when you’re going around,” explained Mike Skeen, one of Lone Star Racing’s drivers, in this week’s Continental Tire pre-race advance. “It feels like someone just meandered through some fields on a tractor to plan the layout. The result is a great combination of technical corners and flowing, high-speed sections with over 130 feet of elevation change.

“There is plenty of runoff area for the drivers to work with, but all of that beautiful grass proved to be an issue last year for many people that went off course and then had to pit to clean out the grill to avoid overheating. There are also many curbs that we have to use to improve lap times, but they can cause problems if taken too aggressively when the air pressures in our Continental tires are too low.”

Cautions are generally a rarity here with only eight total caution laps over the last three years. Additionally, Lime Rock went caution-free, so it’ll be interesting to see if that cleanliness keeps up.

OTHER NOTES

  • While Tequila Patron ESM with its Nissan Onroak DPi (Pipo Derani) and Team Penske with its Acura ARX-05 (Juan Pablo Montoya and Dane Cameron) have kicked off the IMSA driver market silly season, Mazda Motorsports’ John Doonan provided an update on the Mazda Team Joest status in this week’s Sportscar365 podcast, linked here.
  • In the Continental Tire SportsCar Challenge, a 31-car field heads to VIR for this weekend’s race as well. The GS class points standings are particularly tight with points leaders Dylan Murcott and Dillon Machavern just four points ahead of Cameron Cassels and Trent Hindman, and eight clear of Marc Miller and Till Bechtolsheimer. Miller, who with Danny Burkett took CJ Wilson Racing’s first GS win at this race last year, and his new teammate will have a revised Andy Blackmore Designs livery this weekend with new partner Unit Nutrition adorning the team’s No. 33 Porsche Cayman GT4 Clubsport.
  • Military appreciation at race tracks is always a good thing, and will be part of this weekend at VIR. Operation Motorsport is partnering with the USO of North Carolina this weekend at the Michelin GT Challenge at VIR, with the organization hosting 11 wounded soldiers and veterans from the surrounding Raleigh, Ft. Bragg area and embedding them within a few teams so that they can be part of a motorsports experience as a recovery activity. The organization’s website is linked here.

Vandoorne re-upped with McLaren for 2018

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Heading into his first home Grand Prix, Belgian driver Stoffel Vandoorne will continue with McLaren Honda into 2018. Perhaps more notable was the continued inclusion of Honda as well within the confirmation.

Vandoorne made his Grand Prix debut at Bahrain 2016 and scored a point filling in for Fernando Alonso. He now scored his first 2017 point last race in Hungary, ending 10th as he did in Bahrain.

The Belgian was always expected to continue and it’s been confirmed the team won’t waffle on that.

“I’m delighted that the team has now formally announced that I will continue to race for them next year, because I’ll be able to approach the second half of my rookie season with total focus on the job in hand: namely getting the very most I can out of my car, my engineers, and everything and everyone around me,” Vandoorne said.

“I’ve already learned such a huge amount in the first half of my first season in Formula 1 – from my engineers, from my mechanics, from Eric [Boullier], from Zak [Brown] and from Jonathan [Neale], and also from Fernando [Alonso], who is a brilliant driver and also an excellent team-mate.

“Last but not least, I want to say thank you to McLaren’s partners and fans for their loyalty and enthusiasm – they are the best in the business – and also to McLaren’s Executive Committee Principals, [Shaikh] Mohammed and Mansour [Ojjeh], who continue to put their faith in me.”

Boullier added, “When we announced at the end of 2016 that Stoffel would be a McLaren Honda race driver for 2017, we indicated that our plan was that he’d race for us for a number of years.

“That plan hasn’t changed, and I’m very happy therefore to be able to confirm that he’ll continue to race for us next season.

“Like all rookies, he’s had to learn a lot in the first half of his first Formula 1 season, but we have great confidence in him, and he’s getting better and better all the time. His team-mate is a tough opponent – that’s an understatement in fact, because he’s arguably the best driver in the sport today – but Stoffel’s robust talent and fierce ambition make us sure that he’ll achieve great successes with us in the future.”

Brown confirmed the multi-year number without putting a specific number down on it.

“Echoing Eric’s words, I’d like to add only that I regard Stoffel as a super talent – a future Formula 1 world champion in fact – and that’s why I’ve always been adamant that he should race for us on a multi-year basis,” he said.

“Before anyone asks me any questions about duration, we don’t want to go into that kind of confidential contractual detail, but let me put it this way: when we signed Stoffel, we intended that he would race for us for a significant number of years, and that remains our firm intention.

“We all know Stoffel’s potential, and when we have a package fast enough to win grands prix again – and we will – Stoffel will be in the right place to score his first Formula 1 victory.”

Alonso’s future, of course, remains a hot button topic set to be decided in September at the earliest.

Toro Rosso extends contract for technical director James Key

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Scuderia Toro Rosso technical director James Key will continue with the team for the foreseeable future, following a contract extension announced on Tuesday.

Key joined the team in 2012 and has seen the Faenza-based squad solidify its role in the upper midfield, with occasional surprise finishes that have pushed the team near the top three or four teams on the grid.

“I am delighted to continue with Toro Rosso and remain part of the Red Bull family,” he said. “This is a team which I have great respect for and have thoroughly enjoyed working with for the past 5 years; now I look forwards to continuing our project into the future.

“STR is unique, facing the challenges of being spread over two countries and fulfilling the roles of both a team in its own right and an important part of the Red Bull driver program: they are challenges that the team takes in its stride and, whilst doing so, continues to grow and improve year on year.

“Most importantly, the people I have had the pleasure to work with at STR are second to none: professional, ambitious and focussed, they have all worked incredibly hard to improve the team’s performance and will continue that hard work with the same dedication and optimism in the coming years too. I would like to thank Franz Tost and Red Bull for their continued support and confidence. We have more work to do, and I look forwards to taking the next steps with Toro Rosso towards our goals.”

Team principal Franz Tost added, Formula 1 is a team sport, but one in which an individual can still make a difference. So far, in his time with us, James has proved that he can indeed make that difference, leading the technical side of the operation.

“Not only has he been adept at producing chassis-aero packages that are well regarded throughout the paddock, he has also shown the management skills necessary to get the most out of all the various departments that work together both here in Faenza and in Bicester. I am therefore delighted that James will be with us for the foreseeable future to continue this fruitful process.”