Photo courtesy of IMSA

Simpson, JDC-Miller rue lost win chance at Road America

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ELKHART LAKE, Wis. – The No. 22 Tequila Patron ESM Nissan Onroak DPi won the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship unofficial “Which Prototype topples Cadillac sweepstakes” in Sunday’s Continental Tire Road Race Showcase.

But it was the car that’s been the most consistent challenger to the Cadillacs – the No. 85 JDC-Miller Motorsports Oreca 07 Gibson – which was perhaps in with the best chance to win today but fell victim to a strategic misstep, that didn’t look bad at the time.

Misha Goikhberg started eighth and last in the Prototype field but even so, that wasn’t the worst case scenario because both he and Stephen Simpson had nowhere to go but up afterwards, and they knew they had better race pace.

Goikhberg enjoyed a couple intense battles in his stint, and then Simpson was up to fourth with just under an hour remaining in the race and the question was how they could move even further forward from there.

The caution flew once John Edwards stopped at pit in in his No. 24 BMW Team RLL BMW M6 GTLM, and that presented a tough place for the Prototype field at that time.

With most cars unable to run much longer than 40 minutes on a single tank of fuel, but with 55 minutes and change left in the race, the JDC-Miller team gambled that staying out then could pay dividends – but it would only work if the race would stay green from there after the restart.

Simpson restarted in the lead on Lap 55, with just under 40 minutes left to go, and seeing this strategy play out against the other six Prototypes that pitted under the caution would have been fascinating.

It never got the chance to materialize though as contact between the No. 3 Corvette C7.R of Antonio Garcia and the No. 911 Porsche 911 RSR of Dirk Werner saw Werner get beached in Turn 1 after getting sent off course. And it also doomed Simpson’s hopes because he’d need to pit on this caution and lose all the track position.

Following a stop for emergency service and a second, later stop for full service, Simpson and Goikhberg dropped back to eighth overall and in class, for their worst finish of the season. Until Road America, the team finished between second and sixth each race – which placed the pairing third in points.

Simpson was left to rue the tough call in the immediate aftermath of the race, but still praised the team for making it because under green conditions, it could have played out in their favor.

“The rationale behind it made sense. But obviously we need to revisit it and learn from it,” Simpson told NBC Sports. “It’s not that it was a silly decision. It just didn’t fall our way.”

Before he did pit, Simpson enjoyed a great battle with eventual winner Pipo Derani in the Nissan, even though it wasn’t a real battle for position knowing the pit stop was imminent. Simpson praised Derani’s race craft, and Derani did the same afterwards.

“Before the weekend even started, I had a bug in my stomach, extra determination to succeed,” Simpson said. “Even after qualifying I didn’t worry. I believe I can out race all these guys. I planned on doing it today and the next two races as well.

“I’m not sure who I was racing in the Nissan, but I have tons of respect for him. It was fun to race up there. It was very good. It’s a pleasure competing with them. I’m disappointed we are not rewarded.”

Derani echoed those thoughts, while also not sure when Simpson would need to pit.

“I knew he had to make a pit stop. My engineer advised me to play smart with him,” Derani said. “You never know. I tried to overtake him. Luckily he had to pit and we had the green laps in the end. It’s a tricky situation. We could see how aggressive he was driving. Didn’t want to put myself in a risky position. Luckily he pitted and we had clean air after that.”

Simpson regretted the day’s ending but said eventually if the performance keeps up, their day will come.

“That’s what makes this one disappointing. The JDC-Miller guys work extra hard. We need to convert these good opportunities into wins.”

Hartley happy with ‘big progression’ on first day with Toro Rosso

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With 69 laps completed (28 in free practice one and 41 in free practice two) and respectable lap times in both sessions, Brendon Hartley quickly acclimated to a modern day Formula 1 chassis in his first run with Scuderia Toro Rosso in Friday practice for the United States Grand Prix.

The Porsche factory driver has been drafted into the team following a convoluted series of musical chairs that sees Daniil Kvyat back after a two-race absence, Carlos Sainz Jr. now at Renault and Pierre Gasly racing at the Super Formula season finale in Suzuka.

Over the time in the car today, Hartley experienced changeable conditions in FP1 before a more normal FP2, and discovered the new F1 cockpit after a day learning in the garage yesterday.

“A steep learning curve today! It all went pretty smoothly and I kept the car on track without making too many mistakes, so I’m quite happy,” the New Zealander reflected at day’s end.

“I didn’t really know what to expect from today because I just had so much to learn! I think I made quite a big progression throughout the day.

“The biggest difference from what I’m used to is the high-speed grip, it’s incredible here in Formula 1…it was quite an eye-opener! Another challenge are the tires, which are also quite different to what I’m used to. On the other hand, the long-run looks quite positive and I did a good job managing the tires there – the biggest thing I need to work on now is the new tire pace, and I’ll get another crack at it tomorrow morning before qualifying.

“All in all, I’d say it’s all coming together. We’ll now work hard and go through plenty of data tonight and hopefully I’ll make another step forward tomorrow.”

His best lap was 1.1 seconds up on Friday driver Sean Gelael, the Indonesian Formula 2 driver, in FP1 (1:39.267 to 1:40.406, good enough for 14th) and 1.1 seconds off the returning Kvyat in FP2 (1:37.987 to 1:36.761, good enough for 17th). Interestingly, the Gelael/Hartley combination in FP1 marked the second time in three races that Toro Rosso had a pair of drivers in its cars without a single Grand Prix start between them – Gasly’s debut at Malaysia was the other, when he and Gelael were in in FP1.

Coming into Friday’s running, Hartley said he was more ready for this opportunity now than he had been as a teenager. He admitted he’d called Red Bull’s Helmut Marko in the wake of Porsche’s LMP1 withdrawal news earlier this year to say he was game for any chance that might come.

“I’m a lot stronger than I was back then, basically. I wasn’t ready at 18 years old. I like to think I’m ready now,” he said.

“I haven’t driven a single-seater since 2012, but I like to think that Porsche LMP1 has hopefully prepared me well.”

As for the rest of his weekend, it’s been made more complicated by Hartley being assessed a 25-spot grid penalty, even though Hartley had done nothing to accrue the penalties.

The roundabout sequence of driver changes at Toro Rosso saw Gasly replace Kvyat, Kvyat replace Sainz, and now Hartley replace Gasly, as is outlined by NBCSN pit reporter Will Buxton below.