People, and Penske. Buzz for IMSA is growing. Photo courtesy of IMSA

DiZinno: IMSA’s platinum potential evident in Petit Le Mans finale

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The plaudits and hype coming like a tidal wave to IMSA and its marquee IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship of late is properly deserved, as for the first time in decades, it feels like North American sports car racing is truly on the verge of a “big thing.”

Both the American Le Mans Series and GRAND-AM Rolex Series had their selling points but neither was as good as they could be until they came together in 2012, debuting as a merged series in 2014. And even in a merged series, it’s still taken four years of putting the pieces together and IMSA crafting its own, distinct Prototype formula in the Daytona Prototype international (DPi) platform to truly put the series on the precipice of greatness.

Potential is justified only if it can be met; otherwise, it is the single scariest word in the English language. But right now, IMSA’s potential energy is such that if it can be properly converted into kinetic energy, the series is well-positioned to take off and not just hit a golden level of market penetration, but a platinum one (if you get the driver ratings joke here, congratulations: you’re a proper sports car junkie).

The first real sign of that evidence took place at last weekend’s Motul Petit Le Mans, the capper to the 2017 season but almost a race that was more a dress rehearsal for 2018. The fact the 2017 championships were largely determined going into the event meant the race itself and the quality of content on the grid, and number of announcements being made, took precedence.

IMSA makes no secret that it has a lot of “stakeholders,” and those could be anything from drivers and teams, to manufacturers (OEMs), major Fortune 500 companies and others within the digital space. A one-hour run of announcements that included key pieces of content revealed from Michelin, Motul and Forza Motorsport – as well as the confirmation that toy giant Hasbro is entering via the D3+Transformers Racing team – all served as intriguing subplots to the weekend. One could argue the fact all these were back-to-back didn’t allow any of them to shine properly; instead, they’ll need to be flushed out over the coming days.

Photo courtesy of IMSA

On-track, the return of Team Penske to the sports car paddock was the biggest talking point. When Penske arrives, it means that the entity it has selected is proper, serious business. Simply put, Penske does not enter things purely for fun; it does so if it makes good business sense and adds to the legacy of racing’s most prestigious brands.

A disclaimer first: nearly all the teams and manufacturers in IMSA present a very professional package… but there is still something special about the Penske presentation that stands out. It’s evident on IndyCar weekends, and it was particularly evident on this IMSA weekend. If the armada of full-time IMSA teams are going to compete with Penske from an optics standpoint, they will need to step their game up based on what was witnessed at Petit. They can remain status quo, but the disparity will be visible.

It’s the little things like having pit lane barriers separating its pit box from the walking path behind it, having the car looking spotless at all times, and creating specific one-off crew uniforms for all members that will all but certainly never be worn again that stood out. That presents a “one team” approach that comes from strong leadership from the top; Tim Cindric looked and sounded happy to be back in a sports car paddock and by every measure, this was a Penske operation drilled down to the last detail.

That the car was even there at all also spoke volumes of how serious Penske is taking IMSA, and how much value it placed on making this one-off entry. A heavy accident in testing by Helio Castroneves meant the car was shipped to France, returned to North Carolina by Tuesday and unloaded at the track on Wednesday.

“It would have been easy to not enter,” Cindric admitted. “The folks at Oreca worked all weekend to get us what we needed. We did the same thing with the guys that are here. Some of the guys are half tanks right now!”

Castroneves promptly rebounded from the accident by being the fastest driver of the trio along with Juan Pablo Montoya and Simon Pagenaud all weekend, scoring pole, and finishing on the podium. Ho hum.

But Penske’s, and for that matter Acura’s, arrivals into the series’ top class is not all that IMSA has to offer. Far from it.

Mazda Team Joest’s entry is also a fascinating thing to consider. Reinhold Joest and Ralf Juttner have taken Porsche and Audi to the top. To do so with Mazda, they’ll have to revise a culture that embraces loyalty and a never-say-die attitude, but has been perpetually hamstrung by a consistently unreliable engine… which is inarguably the worst thing you should be dealing with as a manufacturer. Mazda, like IMSA, has had the word “potential” attached to it for years. The Joest team now has the proper ability to unleash it.

While Penske (right) arrives, Patron ESM and Action Express won’t sit still. Photo courtesy of IMSA

The late-season form shown by Tequila Patron ESM with its two Nissan Onroak DPis keep them in the frame, and with more continuity there than at the other teams plus the positive momentum of the actual Petit Le Mans win puts them in good form for next year.

Ricky and Jordan Taylor are split in 2018. Photo courtesy of IMSA

And then of course, there’s the Taylors. Jordan and Ricky Taylor will be apart but they’ll both have a title to defend, albeit on different teams. With Ricky Taylor and Dane Cameron now at Penske, Action Express Racing, now will feature revised lineups to their two Cadillac DPi-V.Rs with a pair of flying Felipes – spelled differently between Felipe Nasr and Filipe Albuquerque.

The DPi platform has emerged as the way forward for top-level prototype racing at least in the short term over the next two to three years, as the Automobile Club de l’Ouest figures out its course of action with LMP1 in the wake of drawdowns from Audi and Porsche, and with the uncertainty about Toyota. With that as the flagship, and the content level of drivers throughout the field, IMSA has its headliner all set.

As for the others, there is tempered excitement – not because they don’t have headline quality, but because you don’t want to overlook the additional good there. As an example, what JDC/Miller Motorsports did as the top-performing LMP2-spec car, with the Oreca 07 Gibson, was perhaps the most under-appreciated story of the year.

Will the “JDC Banana Boat” be reduced to a supporting act if the Balance of Performance between DPis and LMP2s – JDC one of several quality teams in that category that also figures to include operations run by Troy Flis (VISIT FLORIDA, but potentially back to Spirit of Daytona name), Bobby Oergel (PR1/Mathiasen), Jon Bennett and Morgan Brady (CORE), and Brent O’Neill (Performance Tech Motorsports) among others – is unable to keep the privateer entries in the frame? Sports car racing’s biggest activators are its manufacturers; its biggest heart is spent by its privateers and gentlemen drivers.

Similarly, quite how the GT classes move forward is another question, and this is where we again look back to that glorious, yet dangerous “p-word,” potential, again.

GTLM field. Photo courtesy of IMSA

GT Le Mans seems finely poised between its five manufacturers: Chevrolet, Ford, Ferrari, Porsche and BMW. The latter brings a new car to the fight next year in the M8 GTE, up against a range of cars that will be anywhere from year two to year five in their cycles.

For a class where the cars, more than the drivers, are the stars, will the door-banging beasts that have kept both ALMS and IMSA intrigued for more than a decade get overshadowed by the allure and top draw of the DPi category? The leading GT class now is stronger than ALMS GT2 was in the last prototype heyday of 2006-2008 when GT2 was on the ascendancy and GT1 was on its way out. It must not get overlooked, and will be a critical class as Michelin’s lone class next year in the year before Michelin takes over everything in 2019.

How will GTD look in 2018? Photo courtesy of IMSA

The second GT class, GT Daytona, seems to have an even bigger dilemma going forward. The variety and parity in the class is excellent, from the nine manufacturers that populated the class this year. However with skyrocketing budgets – from $2.5 to $3 million annually for most teams – a couple team reductions from this year (Stevenson and CORE won’t be back as CORE moves up to Prototype; Acura and Lexus factory efforts are dropped) and an overall dwindling number of seats for hired guns in the wake of a theoretical pro/am format that sees some pros seek to be rated as ams (Silver) to keep their careers afloat, the class now falls to third on a stacked depth chart within the framework of the series.

There’s significant reason to be excited about what Michelin will bring to the table as IMSA’s official tire partner from 2019, with a year’s worth of testing and activation buildup planned before it takes over as the single supplier for all three classes (although GTLM remains open). However it would be remiss to forget or ignore what Continental has done, often sticking through sports car racing through its rough years as the merger took hold and being massive activators. That they’re unable to continue is an unfortunate business reality of this new era of top-level sports car racing.

This is before you get to all of IMSA’s other series, from its Challenge to its one-make championships, all of which feature a bevy of talented drivers, teams and characters that add to IMSA’s weekend presence. They’re worth exploring too if you take the time to do so.

So IMSA has three-plus months to build between on a year of incredible announcements and buzz over this offseason, with testing and more lineups to get sorted in the run up to next year’s Roar Before the Rolex 24, and then the Rolex 24 at Daytona itself.

The buzz is palpable; the atmosphere bordering on electric. The question – and the key – is whether IMSA can live up to the hype that has built up this year, and will build over the winter.

Neurosurgeon discusses brain injuries such as Michael Schumacher’s

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PARIS (AP) — More than four years after a ski accident caused him a near-fatal brain injury, little is known about Michael Schumacher’s current condition. Updates on his health have been extremely scarce ever since he left hospital in September 2014 to be cared for privately at his Swiss home on the shores of Lake Geneva. Details of his specific condition and the treatment he received have been kept strictly private. The last public statement 16 months ago clarified nothing further would be said.

Colin Shieff is a retired neurosurgeon from Britain’s National Health Service and a trustee of Headway, the national brain injury charity. Although he has never treated Schumacher, or spoken with doctors who’ve treated Schumacher over the years, he has dealt with similar cases both at immediate critical-care level and further down the line in terms of long-term treatment.

Shieff spent many years working with people with brain injuries and trauma, including at NATO field hospitals in Afghanistan an Iraq. He answered questions for The Associated Press related to the nature of Schumacher’s brain injury, pertaining to how his condition may have evolved in the time since his accident.

MORE: As F1 season begins, Michael Schumacher still fighting, far from forgotten

Q. In your opinion, what’s the likely prognosis at this stage?

A. “The nature of his injury and those bits of information that are available, and have been available, suggest that he has sustained permanent and very major damage to his brain. As a consequence his brain does not function in a fashion similar to yours or mine. The longer one goes on after an injury the more remote it is that any improvement becomes. He is almost certainly not going to change from the situation he is now.”

Q. What ongoing treatments would he be having?

A. “He will have the kind of treatment, which is care: giving him nourishment, giving him fluid. The probability is that this is given in the main – or at least as supplements – through some tube passed into his intestinal system, either through his nose or mouth, or more likely a tube in the front wall of the tummy. He will have therapy to sit him, because he won’t be able to get himself out of a bed and into a chair. He will be treated in a way that will ensure his limbs move and don’t remain rigid.”

Q. Would someone in his position receive around-the-clock treatment?

A. “He will be allowed a period of rest and sleep and relaxation, and he will be given an environment. I’m positive as I can be without knowing the facts (that) he will be living in an environment that – although it’s got artificial bits of medical kit and care and people – will mimic a caring, warm, pleasant, socially stimulating environment.”

Q. Would he be able to sense he’s in such an environment?

A. “I don’t know. There is always a technical, medical and neurological issue with defining a coma. Almost certainly he cannot express himself (in a conversation). He may well be able to indicate, or it may be apparent to those around him, that he is uncomfortable or unhappy. Or (he) is perhaps getting pleasure from seeing his children or hearing music he’s always liked, or having his hand stroked.”

Q. Are patients in his situation aware of touch and voice from family members?

A. “Absolutely. Even in the early stages, even in a critical care unit, when medicines are being given, for one individual at one time there may be an ability to discern and show response to someone they are familiar with. Respond to familiar, respond to family you’re triggered to. You hear them all your life so that’s the very, very familiar (aspect) the person is going to respond to.”

Q. Is there a chance he can make A) a full recovery? B) A partial recovery?

A. “First one, absolutely, totally no. Number one statistically, number two neurologically, and number three he’s been ill for so long. He’s lost muscle bulk, even if he opened his eyes and started talking there will have been loss of memory, there will be impact on behavior, on cognitive functions. He would not be the same person. (As for a) partial recovery, even the smallest thing that gets better is some kind of recovery. But (it depends) whether that recovery contributes to a functional improvement for him to be able to express himself – other than an evidence of saying `Yes’ or an evidence of saying `No.’ (Therefore) if he could use words of two syllables, if he could turn on the remote control for the tele. One can do, professionally, all sorts of wonderful things with electronic devices and couple them up to eye and mouth movements. Sometimes with a person in a situation called `Locked In’ or `Profoundly neurologically comprised’ – which is essentially paralysis but with continuing intellectual function – ways can be found to communicate with those people. If that had been so with Michael Schumacher I am positive we would have known that is the case, so I don’t believe it’s so for him.”

Q. This is a deeply personal decision for the family. But how long can treatment last for?

A. “In, for example, our health system we don’t have the luxury to keep maximal intervention going in a high-tech hospital environment. For Michael Schumacher’s family, I suspect they have the financial support to be able to provide those things. Therefore, for him, the future is longer but it doesn’t imply any change in the quality of it.”

Q. Some reports have estimated the cost of treatment at anything up to 200,000 euros ($245,000) per week. Is that realistic?

A. “I would personally think that’s over the top, in terms of what I reckon that might buy him. He’ll have a nurse, a therapist, a visiting doctor. There’ll be an extra pair of hands when something physical is being done, when he’s being moved to somewhere. That doesn’t add up to 150,000 euros or 200,000 euros. He needs essentially, somebody with nursing or therapeutic qualifications with him at all times. So that’s however many people you need to run a 24/7 roster. You’re talking probably eight people to provide that level of care constantly over a year’s period. That’s the number of nurses required for instance, to nurse or to staff, one critical care bed in an intensive care unit.”

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