Photo courtesy of IMSA

Continental Tire looking ahead to ‘new adventures’ from 2019

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The fact Continental Tire’s tenure in IMSA will end after 2018 comes as a bit of a surprise to the sports car world, following a prolonged period of negotiation to extend its role into 2019 and beyond following its initial five-year contract.

IMSA has announced Michelin for the new contract in 2019 and beyond in a multi-year agreement. Both Continental and Michelin have been within the same top-level series – either the American Le Mans Series or IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship – since 2013.

Continental was the PC class single supplier in 2013 and from 2014 in the merged championship, the single supplier for the Prototype, PC and GT Daytona classes, while Michelin raced in GT Le Mans, the series’ lone class for open tire competition.

“We are extremely grateful for the role Continental Tire played in helping to grow our racing platforms throughout our partnership dating back to 2010,” Scott Atherton, IMSA President, said in a release. “Continental has been an outstanding partner and was instrumental in elevating the status of the WeatherTech Championship and Continental Tire Challenge to new heights. We extend heartfelt appreciation to our friends at Continental for their unwavering support.”

Continental, throughout its tenure, had sought to activate and promote sports car racing heavily. Continental served as title sponsor of the Continental Tire SportsCar Challenge and a race sponsor at numerous tracks, notably at Road America and Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca. Some of the areas where it invested off-track was with using some IMSA drivers to develop a new street tire, podcasts featuring IMSA drivers Jordan and Ricky Taylor, veteran IMSA driver Ryan Eversley with “Dinner with Racers” podcast co-creator Sean Heckman, its at-track displays and in other areas of marketing. It also supports IMSA Radio and its Continental Tire pit lane team.

On-track, the company responded without fail to numerous customer requests and made changes to either its constructions or compounds of tires as the series evolved.

This included working through the merger period as the top level Prototype class combined both Daytona Prototype and LMP2-spec machinery through 2016, before the new Daytona Prototype international (DPi) and LMP2 2017-spec cars came in this year and saw Continental create a new Prototype class tire.

It’s with all those elements in the backdrop that IMSA’s decision and the waiting to announce this news comes as a shock to the system at Continental, but also something they feel they can bounce back from.

Travis Roffler, director of marketing of Continental Tire the Americas, explained the process behind the decision and where Continental Tire goes from here.

“We were informed a few weeks ago. I’d say we’ve been in active negotiations for most of this year talking to them about it and getting more information about what they were looking for,” Roffler told NBC Sports.

“We were given a framework or target to shoot for. We believe we gave a very fair response to that proposal, including a significant increase to our current investment level, which I can tell you throughout our entire contract we always outspent our contractual obligations. This was a step above our current spend.

“Our investment has been there to have the huge display at every race, engage with the fan base, and go through some challenging years of sports car racing, switching from DPs to P2s to DPis, going through when car counts dropped, we stuck through it.

“It was disappointing to go through that and now feel there was a good alignment moving forward… before getting ousted.”

Photo courtesy of IMSA

While disappointed with IMSA’s decision, Roffler hailed Simon Hodgson, IMSA Vice President, Competition, for his transparency and dialogue throughout the process.

“In a spec series you’re never going to satisfy every team, because one team, make, model, or competitor feels another one is getting a better deal,” Roffler said.

“Simon has been wonderful to work with and great in letting us improve development of the tire, whereas in the past… (IMSA) wasn’t so receptive. We felt in a good place.

“But this announcement… we’d been involved in the timing. We’ve been sitting on it, knowing you were getting a divorce and waiting to announce it until the last minute. It’s been a challenge to say the least.”

Continental has given quite a lot to sports car racing over the years and following its acquisition of Hoosier Racing Tires last October, is still confident of moving into other areas in motorsports. Therein lies the challenge and the next opportunity, which Roffler said the company will embrace with open arms.

“With the purchase of Hoosier Racing Tire, we’re invested in motorsports globally. We look globally to grow,” he said.

“We’ll continue to develop on platforms like GT3, which is a global platform. That might look strange, given we’re being escorted out of IMSA. But that platform lives globally in other series around the world. So we’ll look to move that platform forward in other series going forward.”

Roffler was heavily concerned about the Continental Tire staff who have sunk a lot of time and investment into tire design and production, and their jobs. But he’s thankful for what they’ve accomplished in IMSA as they look forward to their next motorsports opportunity.

“It’s bittersweet at this point,” he admitted. “This entire team have dumped a lot of heart and soul into this program and as I said before, lived through some lean years. We were touted the merger would be a ‘holy grail’ but it took two-three years to get there. Our whole model was challenged, but we stuck through it. We were determined to do what we could do for our consumers, and move the needle.

“The first renewal came up and we kind of got the legs kicked out from underneath on this first one. It’s a shock to the program.

“But we’re tough. We’ll get over this, dust ourselves off, we have ’18 still in front of us, and we’ll be looking forward to the new adventures in ’19 and beyond.

“The big man says every time a door shuts, another one opens. I full well believe that we’ll find something even better.”

2017 IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship/Mobil 1 Twelve Hours of Sebring/Sebring International Raceway, Sebring, FL USA/Saturday 18 March 2017/Continental tire/World Copyright: Michael L. Levitt/LAT Images

Schmidt Peterson aiming high with Hinchcliffe, Wickens

Photo: IndyCar
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The new Schmidt Peterson Motorsports duo of James Hinchcliffe and Robert Wickens expressed a high amount of confidence during Wednesday’s confirmation of Hinchcliffe’s return and Wickens’ signing, as the pair looks to return the Sam Schmidt and Ric Peterson co-owned team to prominent status within the Verizon IndyCar Series.

“We’re hoping to give Toronto and Ontario and Canadian sports fans in general something to cheer about over the next season,” Hinchcliffe quipped during a teleconference on Wednesday.

Granted, there are likely to be several challenges to overcome, notably for Wickens, who returns to single-seater competition for the first time since 2011, when he was a champion of the Formula Renault 3.5 series and served as test driver for the now defunct Manor Racing (then known as Marussia Virgin Racing).

Having spent every year since then in DTM, where he won a total of six races and finished as high as fourth in the championship (2016), Wickens knows returning to open wheel competition will be an adjustment. However, he explained that the history of Schmidt Peterson Motorsports, specifically its Indy Lights history, speaks to their ability to help a driver adapt, and he rates the program they’re putting together very highly.

“I think Schmidt Peterson Motorsports have a fantastic driver development program. They showed that in their multiple Indy Lights championships along the way. I think we will have a strong program in place. I have a feeling that the simulator will be my new best friend,” Wickens said when asked about getting reacquainted with an open-wheel car.

Of course, having an experienced teammate like Hinchcliffe to lean on will undoubtedly help the transition, something Wickens readily admitted.

“I’m very fortunate that I have James as my teammate because he’s so experienced, I can learn off him. Because we already have such a good off-track relationship, I feel like you can just take his word, trust him, kind of move forward with it,” he revealed.

They’ve been teammates before, both in karting where they first met in 2001, and then in the now-defunct A1 Grand Prix series in 2007-2008, a series that pitted nations against each other in spec open-wheel cars. Funnily, that A1GP type of vibe returns as Schmidt Peterson Motorsports now has that with its “Team Canada” mantra while all four of Andretti Autosport’s full-season drivers are American.

For Hinchcliffe, Wickens’ background, even if it hasn’t been in the single-seater realm since 2011, was a big selling point in adding him to the team.

“In Robby, we have a proven winner at a very high level. The level of technical expertise that he comes with from his time in DTM is very impressive,” he said of Wickens’ technical background.

Hinchcliffe added that Wickens’ ability to analyze the car and its setup was evidenced in two outings: one at Sebing International Raceway in March, in part of a “ride swap” between the two longtime friends, and a second at Road America, when he subbed on Friday practice for Mikhail Aleshin.

Wickens sampled Hinchcliffe’s No. 5 Arrow Electronics Honda earlier this year. Photo: IndyCar

Hinchcliffe revealed that Wickens’ feedback to the team and his ability to quickly adapt to the chassis took everyone somewhat by surprise.

“We did our ride swap. He had two hours in the car, hardly anything even resembling a test day, and his performance was pretty impressive. No doubt the time in Road America helped because that really gave us a better sense of his technical feedback, integrated with the team a little bit more. Everybody was happy to work with him on that day,” said Hinchcliffe.

Further still, Hinchcliffe is firm in his belief that the 2018 aero kit and its reduction in aerodynamic downforce will fall right into Wickens’ wheelhouse, based on Hinchcliffe’s own take after sampling Wickens’ DTM Mercedes earlier this year.

“In all honesty, I was saying earlier today, the 2018 car is probably better suited for him than the 2017 car because of the experience he’s had the last handful of series,” Hinchcliffe asserted.

“The (aero kit) was such high downforce, it would be a big change coming out of DTM. But with the loss of downforce that we’ve seen, the car is moving around a little bit more, brake zones, things like that, it won’t be as big a transition I think. Just based on the experience that I got in our ride swap, I think he’s going to adapt very quickly, be comfortable very quickly, and as a result be competitive very quickly. So it’s going to be exciting.”

As for expectations heading into next year, team co-owner Schmidt did not mince words and expects the team’s performance to resemble what they did in 2012, 2013, and 2014, when they won a total of four races (with driver Simon Pagenaud) and finished in the top five in the championship each year.

“We had a stint in ’12, ’13, ’14 where we finished fifth in the points (or better. I think we want to get back to that level of competition,” Schmidt added. “We felt like we were missing things in having two cars with equal funding and equal drivers and equal capabilities. We think this gets back there.”

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