Long and Parente last year in Monterey. Photo: PWC

PWC: Long, Parente square off for overall, sprint GT titles

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After thePirelli World Challenge SprintX (and also GTS) championships were decided a week and a half ago at Circuit of The Americas, it’s the overall GT championship that will get decided in this week’s doubleheader round for the series at Sonoma Raceway.

World Challenge has four races, with the two GT races Saturday at 2:15 p.m. PT and Sunday at 10:15 a.m. PT, and the two GTS races Saturday at 5:15 p.m. PT and Sunday at 1:30 p.m. PT. The second GTS race is the last on-track activity before the Verizon IndyCar Series crowns its champion.

The full preview from the series is below.

The battles between Patrick Long and Alvaro Parente over the past two seasons in the Pirelli World Challenge have comprised one of the best duels in all of sports car racing.  The two factory drivers have raced wheel-to-wheel and win-for-win in their quests for the 2016 and 2017 PWC championships.

Last year, the duel went right down to the final lap at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca before Parente, K-PAX Racing and McLaren took the coveted driver, team and manufacturers titles.

Since that thrilling day, Parente has accumulated another four race wins, as has Long, and both will be all out for the top step of victory lane at Sonoma Raceway to secure this year’s championships.

Now, after 17 rounds of competition, the two veterans come down the PWC Grand Prix of Sonoma this weekend (Sept. 15-17) to determine several series crowns including the GT Sprint (9 rounds) and the Overall GT (19 rounds including GT Sprint and GT SprintX) championship.

Last year, Parente, in the No. 9 K-PAX Racing McLaren 650S, led Long by two points entering the Monterey finale. This year, Long, in the No. 58 Wright Motorsports Porsche 911 GT3 R, leads Parente by five points (157-152) in the GT Sprint standings and by 28 (320-292) in the Overall GT points entering the two 50-minute GT sprint races at the 2.22-mile, 11-turn Sonoma Raceway road circuit.

In addition, the coveted GT Sprint and Overall GT manufacturers’ championships are close and coming down to the wire with Porsche at 113, Cadillac at 107 and McLaren at 106.

“The COTA races (on Labor Day weekend) were points days that we needed,” said Long, the 2011 PWC GT champion from Manhattan Beach, Calif. “I’m going to Sonoma with my head still down, 100% full throttle and completely focused because, as we learned last year, it’s never over until it’s over. We just have to push to close this out for the manufacturers, drivers and year-end championship.”

Parente, the Portugese star who won six races last year, has captured all four of his 2017 victories in the 50-minute GT Sprint format with triumphs at St. Petersburg, Long Beach and Mid-Ohio (twice). Does the GT format favor Alvaro at Sonoma?

A couple of factors could be in his court this weekend.  His K-PAX Racing team is based at Sonoma Raceway and Parente has already tested at the home track, plus Parente took second and fourth in last year’s Sonoma doubleheader while Long placed fourth and eighth.

“We got two fourth place finishes (at COTA), but it didn’t go as planned that weekend,” said Parente. “But look, it’s racing. It was the maximum we could get out of the car, and we did all we could. For me, fourth place was great. This year, [Ben Barnicoat, Parente’s teammate in SprintX] and I had some pretty good races and some really tough ones where I think we still maximized the potential of our car. Now, I’m looking forward to the two rounds at Sonoma with the McLaren.”

While the Long and Parente battle will take center stage for the Pirelli World Challenge this weekend at Sonoma Raceway, other drivers could throw a wrench into the point leaders’ march to championships.

Young Michael Cooper of Syosset, N.Y., driver of the No. 8 Cadillac Racing Cadillac ATS-V.R., has already clinched the GT SprintX drivers title with co-driver Jordan Taylor of Orlando, Fla., but Cooper is still in the mix for the Overall GT crown, just 32 points out of the lead.

The driver to watch this weekend in the GT Sprint division has to be four-time GT series champion Johnny O’Connell of Flowery Branch, Ga., who captured both Sonoma Raceway GT Sprint races last year in his No. 3 Cadillac Racing Cadillac ATS-V.R. O’Connell is seeking his first 2017 PWC victory and Sonoma could be the course for “Johnny Red” after his 2016 showing.

Among the other top contenders for the Sonoma Raceway GT doubleheader are Italy’s Daniel Mancinelli, a three-time SprintX winner in the No. 31 TR3 Racing Ferrari 488 GT3; veteran Bryan Sellers of Braselton, Ga., in the No. 6 K-PAX Racing McLaren 650S; college student Alec Udell of The Woodlands, Tex., in the No. 17 Euroworld Motorsports/GMG Porsche 911 GT3 R; Scotland’s Ryan Dalziel, a two-time SprintX winner, in the No. 2 CRP Racing/DeVilbiss Mercedes-AMG GT3; Ryan Eversley of Atlanta and Peter Kox of The Netherlands in the two all-new RealTime Racing Acura NSX GT3 cars (No. 43 and 93 respectively); veteran Jon Fogarty of Bend, Ore., in the No. 99 GAINSCO/Bob Stallings Racing Porsche 911 GT3 R and Germany’s Pierre Kaffer in the No. 4 Magnus Racing Audi RS 8 LMS.

Action for the PWC Grand Prix of Sonoma begins Friday (Sept. 15) at 9:15 a.m. PDT with GTS practice and 11:00 a.m. PDT with GT/GTA/GT Cup practice.  The two GT races are set for Saturday (Sept. 16) at 2:15 p.m. PDT and Sunday (Sept. 17) at 10:00 a.m. PDT. The GTS events begin at 5 p.m. Saturday and 1:30 p.m. Sunday.

All of Saturday’s races, and Sunday’s GTS race, will be live-streamed for free on World-Challenge.com and MotorTrendOnDemand.com. Sunday’s GT race will be broadcast same-day on CBS Sports Network – check your local listings for broadcast time.

NASCAR America: Newgarden recaps rise to IndyCar title (VIDEO)

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Newly crowned Verizon IndyCar Series champion Josef Newgarden joined NBCSN’s NASCAR America on Tuesday to reflect on his rise to the top of the series.

Newgarden chatted with show host Carolyn Manno about his championship season, integration to Team Penske and bonding with his three teammates, Will Power, Helio Castroneves and Simon Pagenaud.

Pagenaud won Sunday’s GoPro Grand Prix of Sonoma season finale but it wasn’t enough to overcome Newgarden’s points lead.

 

Report: Verizon likely to drop IndyCar title sponsorship after ’18

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One of the under-the-radar elements that’s percolated in the Verizon IndyCar Series paddock this year is Verizon’s activation strategy itself, in its fourth year of its first five-year deal as title sponsor of the championship.

Hulman & Co. CEO Mark Miles, head of INDYCAR’s parent company, told the Sports Business Journal’s Adam Stern while he thinks it’s likely Verizon will end its title sponsorship of the series after 2018, they hope to continue the relationship in a different capacity.

While Verizon got in before 2014, IndyCar was a viable platform for the wireless company to activate in a way it couldn’t in NASCAR, when Sprint was the Cup Series’ title sponsor.

That’s since changed with Sprint’s contract ending after 2016. Verizon still activates within the paddock, working with CSM Sport & Entertainment, but its activation outside the paddock has seemed rather limited this year.

Verizon’s primary point of access or reference point of digital technology has been the Verizon IndyCar Mobile app, which was initially only for Verizon Wireless users but was later expanded to other carriers. That provides some app-specific exclusive content as well as a compilation of written, photographic and video content from IndyCar.com.

Even in the paddock, a Verizon-sponsored “Lunch with Legends” series – where some of IndyCar’s stars from the past had lunch at tracks with fans to provide some exclusive access – was not retained for 2017. Verizon hosted an event at a 5G-outfitted house in Indianapolis this year, prior to the Indianapolis 500, to showcase some of that network capability and virtual reality (VR) technology.

Provided Verizon does not continue as title sponsor past 2018, it would leave the IndyCar series in almost the same situation as prior title sponsor IZOD was in 2013, with a lame duck year.

The absence of a Verizon contract renewal has lurked beneath the surface all year in a year when INDYCAR (sanctioning body) has announced several long-term extensions with key manufacturer partners Dallara, Firestone, Chevrolet, Honda and many of its race tracks.

The competition side of IndyCar has done rather well and has enough momentum with Jay Frye at the head of its President of Competition and Operations for the last two years.

But it’s imperative for IndyCar’s sake its commercial side does as well too, which will make the 2018 season an interesting one from a “how to progress” and find a partner that can truly activate to lift the series’ profile even bigger than it is now.

The title sponsor evolution and the series’ new TV contract, with the current one set to end after 2018, enter as the early leaders in the clubhouse for biggest off-track stories to follow over the winter and into the start of 2018.

Vettel loses huge ground in title race after Singapore blip

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SINGAPORE (AP) In the space of three races, Sebastian Vettel has dropped twice as far behind Lewis Hamilton as he was ahead of him.

After winning the Hungarian Grand Prix in late July, Vettel led by 14 points, with both drivers on four wins heading into the summer break.

But after crashing out on the first lap in Sunday’s Singapore GP, the Ferrari driver trails Hamilton by 28.

“That was very disappointing and it was definitely not the result we were expecting,” Ferrari team principal Maurizio Arrivabene said. “But it doesn’t mean that the battle is all over, just that it has become more difficult.”

Yet it might seem to Mercedes that, for all of his experience, Vettel is throwing away the Formula One title.

“Clearly we would not feel comfortable in Ferrari’s shoes,” Mercedes head of motorsport Toto Wolff said. “But this is not the time for cheering.”

Hamilton has won all three races relatively comfortably since the championship resumed in August, and with only six GPs remaining Vettel faces a huge task to stop Hamilton.

“We guarantee that we will be fighting right to the final corner of the very last Grand Prix of the year,” Arrivabene said.

Mercedes is still expecting a challenge.

“This result doesn’t change a thing in the big picture,” Wolff said. “If anything, it’s a stark reminder that there are six more opportunities for the luck to go against us this season, just as it happened to Ferrari.”

But it will be abundantly harder now for Vettel because, unlike last season, Hamilton has so far not retired from any races. Although he has failed to finish on the podium four times for Mercedes this season, that is the same number as Vettel’s finishes outside the top three.

After winning three of the first six races, Vettel’s grip has loosened with only one win in the past eight.

Points have been thrown away, too.

At the British GP in July, Vettel looked at least assured of a podium finish until an unexpected tire problem at the end of the race bumped him down to seventh.

On Sunday, he had a great chance to win starting from pole position on a hard-braking track much more suited to Ferrari than Mercedes.

A few seconds later, he was out of the race.

Vettel made a hasty error of judgment trying to cut off Max Verstappen heading into the first turn and ultimately caused a crash that also took out Ferrari teammate Kimi Raikkonen – who had made a blistering start – Verstappen and Fernando Alonso.

Vettel apologized to his Ferrari team afterward.

With both Ferraris out, Mercedes had a clear path as Hamilton won his 60th career race and teammate Valtteri Bottas took third.

Mercedes faced a similar scenario at the Spanish GP last year, when Hamilton and then-teammate Nico Rosberg collided on lap 1 and both went out. Mercedes was livid with both drivers that day, and came perilously close to imposing team orders on them.

“You kind of feel for Ferrari. I have been in the situation of losing both cars,” Wolff said. “I know how bitter this is.”

The difference was that Hamilton and Rosberg were fighting each other for the title and, with no main rival from another team, it effectively cost them nothing.

Within Mercedes, Hamilton’s title charge is now the priority.

Although team orders are very unlikely to be imposed, it is clear – unofficially at least – that Bottas will be racing to help Hamilton equal Vettel on four world titles.

Wolff confirmed as much when he inadvertently referred to Bottas as “our second driver” in his post-race debriefing on Sunday, before quickly correcting himself to say “ah, other driver.”

Bottas has had a fine first season since joining as an emergency late replacement for Rosberg, who retired days after winning the 2016 title. Bottas has even exceeded expectations with 10 podiums in 14 races, including two wins, and sits in third place overall.

With a new contract for next year already signed, the Finnish driver has no need to impress Mercedes management and can play an ideal support role to Hamilton in the closing part of the campaign.

Still, he has a little bit of ambition left.

“There are plenty of races to come and plenty of opportunities,” said Bottas, who is 23 points behind Vettel. “Definitely Sebastian is the next target.”

With Hamilton ahead and Bottas closing behind, Vettel is under pressure to deliver at the Malaysian GP in two weeks’ time.

Ocon confirmed for another year at Force India

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Sahara Force India will keep the same driver lineup in 2018, with Esteban Ocon confirming Tuesday he’ll stay alongside Sergio Perez next season.

Although the two drivers have occasionally been at odds this year as Ocon has threatened Perez’s place as team leader, both have been instrumental in keeping Force India a clear fourth place in the Constructor’s Championship, at the top of the crowded midfield behind Mercedes, Ferrari and Red Bull.

Ocon’s had a very strong year, with 56 points scored and having made the points in all but one race (Monaco) this season. His best finish is fifth at the Spanish Grand Prix.

Being confirmed for 2018 means like others, the jockeying for spots in 2019 will be fascinating to watch.