The No. 62 Risi Competizione Ferrari 488 GTE will miss several upcoming IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship races, starting at Watkins Glen International next weekend.
The team has plans to return to the GT Le Mans class later this year, but hasn’t said when.
Risi’s absence was first indicated when IMSA released the Watkins Glen entry list earlier this week. It takes the sole Ferrari in class out of it for a handful of races; the pair of Toni Vilander and Giancarlo Fisichella had a best finish of third so far this season.
“Following an extremely challenging first half of 2017, most recently at the 24 Hours of Le Mans, I have decided to withdraw the Risi Competizione race team from part of the 2017 IMSA season in order to consolidate resources and to reflect on future racing programs,” Team Principal Giuseppe Risi said in a release.
Risi’s crash at Le Mans was with a separate 488 GTE chassis, not its full-season one.
But the IMSA full-season one sustained back-to-back hits at Long Beach and Circuit of The Americas. Then, the brand new car took a beating after Matthieu Vaxiviere came over on top of Pierre Kaffer’s No. 82 car going into a chicane on the Mulsanne Straight.
Kaffer was sore but OK and is in Road America this weekend for Pirelli World Challenge GT action, where he competes in the No. 4 Magnus Racing Audi R8 LMS.
The third round of IMSA’s Tequila Patron North American Endurance Cup season at Watkins Glen International takes place next week, June 29-July 2, with 39 cars and a handful of notable additions in terms of cars and drivers. The Sahlen’s Six Hours of The Glen kicks off the post-Le Mans portion of the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship season.
Gianmaria Bruni makes his debut as a Porsche factory driver alongside Laurens Vanthoor in the No. 912 Porsche GT Team Porsche 911 RSR in GT Le Mans.
Bruni, formerly of Ferrari, has been out of competition since the end of last year. Kevin Estre was in that car the opening rounds of the year before he departed for the FIA World Endurance Championship; Wolf Henzler was in at Circuit of The Americas last time out for the class.
That’s one of eight GTLM cars listed, while the No. 62 Risi Competizione Ferrari 488 GTE is not. The team’s chassis that raced at Le Mans suffered significant front-end damage there after being contacted by Mathieu Vaxiviere’s TDS Racing Oreca 07 on the Mulsanne Straight going into a chicane.
It was a separate chassis from the one raced in IMSA, although consecutive first-lap accidents at Long Beach and Austin took them out of contention.
The Prototype class sees Onroak Automotive veteran Olivier Pla the latest pro in the No. 52 PR1/Mathiasen Motorsports Ligier JS P217 Gibson alongside Jose Gutierrez. The team ran limited laps at Detroit with Kenton Koch and Ryan Lewis listed, with Gutierrez unavailable. Bobby Oergel’s team has cycled through primary lineups of Gutierrez and Tom Kimber-Smith, Kimber-Smith and Will Owen, then at COTA, Gutierrez and Marco Bonanomi.
Pipo Derani (No. 2) and Bruno Senna (No. 22) return to the Tequila Patron ESM Nissan Onroak DPis as third drivers, both after racing in different classes at the 24 Hours of Le Mans. Pla and Derani were in Ford Chip Ganassi Racing Ford GTs while Senna was in one of the Vaillante Rebellion Orecas in LMP2.
Other third drivers that return to action include Filipe Albuquerque, Spencer Pigot, Marino Franchitti and Chris Miller.
The GT Daytona class sees roughly half the 17-car class add third drivers. It’s not a requirement to have a third for Watkins Glen. 3GT Racing, Paul Miller Racing, Stevenson Motorsports, Michael Shank Racing and Turner Motorsport, do not, at the moment, have third drivers.
Notable additions include the Alex Job Racing Audi R8 LMS of Townsend Bell, Bill Sweedler and Frankie Montecalvo and the Dream Racing Lamborghini Huracán GT3. The Montaplast by Land-Motorsport Audi, which ended second in the Rolex 24 at Daytona and had considered doing this race, is not listed.
The Prototype Challenge class has four cars and a bevy of TBAs, as could be expected. While Starworks Motorsport is listed it’s not guaranteed the team will run, Peter Baron instead working towards finalizing his impending LMP2 effort for either later this year or the start of 2018.
A busy weekend for IMSA also features the Continental Tire SportsCar Challenge, IMSA Prototype Challenge presented by Mazda, IMSA Porsche GT3 Cup Challenge USA by Yokohama and Ultra 94 Porsche GT3 Cup Challenge Canada by Yokohama, Lamborghini Blancpain Super Trofeo North America action.
Barely more than a week ago, Tristan Vautier had admitted while he hadn’t fully moved on from the Verizon IndyCar Series, he was thrilled and happy to have a solid full-season opportunity in sports cars with Kenny Habul’s SunEnergy1 Racing program with Mercedes-AMG.
Vautier then delivered arguably the surprise standout performance of the season in what is meant to be Sebastien Bourdais’ stead, running the high line to perfection after starting fifth. It was apparent the engineering setup from Craig Hampson and Olivier Boisson had the No. 18 car dialed in and Vautier never looked like he’d missed a beat despite not racing an IndyCar since 2015 at Sonoma, and last on an oval Pocono a week earlier that year.
Nonetheless Vautier was a top-five regular for most of the race and even led about a dozen laps. He led 10 at Mid-Ohio in 2015 with Coyne and 2 as a rookie with Schmidt Peterson Motorsports in 2013.
“There was nothing I could do. They tangled in front of me. It’s just a bummer. We could have fought for the win,” Vautier told NBCSN’s Robin Miller.
“I wanted to finish the race for my return. I raced hard. I wanted a solid finish. I’m kind of pissed off. I think we can be proud. We represented Seb (Bourdais) well.”
Vautier isn’t confirmed for any further IndyCar races as Bourdais’ injury replacement, and would miss a couple weekends anyway for his planned sports car duties with Mercedes-AMG, either with SunEnergy1 (IMSA) or Team AKKA-ASP (Blancpain GT Series).
The July 9 weekend, the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship is at Canadian Tire Motorsport Park while IndyCar is at Iowa Speedway; July 30, the Blancpain GT Series Endurance Cup races the TOTAL 24 Hours of Spa while IndyCar is at Mid-Ohio and August 26-27, IMSA is at Virginia International Raceway while IndyCar is at Gateway Motorsports Park on the Saturday night.
“Kenny my team owner is such a great person, he supports me beyond my commitments. He wants to see me succeed. If I got the shot, he’d try to free me up for the races that don’t have conflicts… but the team might be set,” Vautier told Miller.
“But I gave it all. I’m happy we maximized everything. We got taken out outside our control. I tried my best to avoid it. Sometimes you can’t avoid it.”
The Coyne team couldn’t avoid another expensive evening, either. With Bourdais’ crashes in Phoenix and Indianapolis qualifying and James Davison’s crash during the race at the Indianapolis 500, there’s now been five wrecked Coyne cars in the last month and a half.
The team was down to just three total tubs at the Detroit weekend, with Gutierrez having made his debut in what was Pippa Mann’s oval chassis – the team’s third car – at Detroit, converted back to road course specification.
The weekend at the Chevrolet Detroit Grand Prix Presented by Lear is usually a celebration of all-things “Bow tie.”
But it was Honda and Acura that utterly dominated the weekend on General Motors’ home soil, with GM’s corporate headquarters in the background.
In total, Honda won both Verizon IndyCar Series races and the new Acura NSX GT3 won its first race in its fifth start in the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship. For good measure, the Honda Red Bull Olsbergs MSE Honda Civic Coupe also got on the podium in Thompson, Conn. this weekend in Red Bull Global Rallycross competition.
Honda’s aero kit struggles since the introduction of manufacturer aero kits in the 2015 IndyCar season have been well-documented, but it wasn’t until you did some digging into the stats to see how rare what the California-based Honda Performance Development effort accomplished was this weekend, and in the last week.
RAHAL BREAKS HONDA’S ROAD AND STREET POLE DROUGHT
When Graham Rahal took the pole for Saturday’s first race of the weekend, it immediately triggered the stats that this ended droughts for both Rahal, the driver, and the Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing team dating to 2009 and 2007 that they’d won poles.
What it also revealed was that Honda hadn’t won a pole on a road or street course in that time of aero kits. All of Honda’s poles since 2015 had come on ovals, courtesy of James Hinchcliffe, Carlos Munoz and Mikhail Aleshin last year in Indianapolis, Texas and Pocono, and this year via Scott Dixon at Indianapolis. The last time Honda won a pole on a road or street course came with the base Dallara DW12 chassis at Houston race one in 2014, achieved by Simon Pagenaud, in a bizarre rain-affected race won by Carlos Huertas.
So, that pole was the first of three big moments for Honda and sister brand Acura on Saturday in Detroit.
ACURA, SHANK, LALLY AND LEGGE WIN GTD
The second came a few hours later when after a storming lap to get up to second in qualifying, Katherine Legge then did the best she could in the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship race in her No. 93 Michael Shank Racing Acura NSX GT3 despite being balked by a slower Prototype Challenge car.
Legge kept the car within shouting distance of the lead though and on the pit stop, the Shank team – which had been flat out for a month anyway with its Indianapolis 500 entry in partnership with Andretti Autosport – nailed its pit stop taking only two left side Continental tires and moving to the lead.
From there, co-driver Andy Lally controlled the pace from there, delivering the first win for the NSX GT3 in only its fifth race in the series. A gamble to not take any tires backfired slightly for Jeff Segal and Ozz Negri in the sister, and rebuilt, No. 86 car; after vaulting from 12th up to sixth, which later became third, Segal got tapped by another car at Turn 7 in the final five minutes and dropped to fifth.
“I’m just so grateful that our team gets the win for the Acura brand today. You could almost feel it around this place, everyone was really, really calm before the race, it was almost too quiet!” Shank said.
“We are really making advancements on the car and I am just so thrilled for the team. Everyone from the drivers, to the crew guys, to the engineers, everyone did what they needed to today.”
For Legge, the victory was a culmination of a lot of hard work and persistence to enter into the Honda and Acura family over the last five years.
“Today was the longest hour of my life watching Andy drive. I was telepathically talking to him. It was harder to watch than actually drive!” she said, after her first win in the U.S. since a Formula Atlantic race in 2005 at San Jose.
“Thank you to everyone who has given us a chance to put together this car and this ride. In 2013, I drove with HPD in the Indy 500 and it started the relationship, and I wanted to be in their program. And I kept nagging to do the ‘500 with Mike, and I kept nagging him. And when they wanted to do Le Mans, I pushed him to drive the LMP there. And then we became a good team, and I became good friends with Andy. So it’s been really special working everything out.”
Lally, who’s achieved a ton in sports car racing on his own, paid all credit to Legge, Shank and HPD for this win.
“Everyone from HPD have been full tilt on this program. Shank and the crew made a fantastic pit stop,” he said. “We’ve had quite an up and down year. We’ve had some things go wrong at bad times, but today, everything went right. I’m so happy for these guys. Kat did an amazing job. She helped me get faster this weekend. I was junk, and I found some things she was doing and applied it to what I was doing. I did not think we were going to be here at the beginning of the weekend!”
RAHAL DOMINATION LEADS HONDA PODIUM SWEEP
The wins for Sebastien Bourdais and James Hinchcliffe at St. Petersburg and Long Beach this year kicked off Honda’s success on the street courses and what followed Saturday afternoon served as a continuation of that form.
Rahal’s first win saw him lead 55 of 70 laps in a period of utter domination, easily his most authoritative win yet of five he’d achieved in the Verizon IndyCar Series.
With Scott Dixon and James Hinchcliffe on the podium behind him, Dixon rallying through pain while Hinchcliffe atoned from a first lap spin with two laps of extra fuel in what was still a two-stop strategy, Honda had its first podium sweep on a road or street course also since that Houston 2014 weekend. In race two, Pagenaud beat teammate Mikhail Aleshin and Jack Hawksworth in what was both of those drivers’ first career IndyCar podiums.
DOUBLING UP ON SUNDAY
Chevrolet finally fought back a bit with Josef Newgarden and Will Power scoring podiums behind Rahal, but after another Honda pole from Takuma Sato in the morning and Rahal banking his second straight win, it was another authoritative day here.
As the Acuras did on Saturday, it was quick pit work from the RLL Racing crew that netted Rahal the lead. Sato led the opening 22 laps, while Rahal led 41 of the remaining 48 laps after the first pit stop sequence, only losing the lead again through stops. Sato was fourth and perhaps unlucky to end that way.
BIG PICTURE? BIG GAINS FOR HONDA IN 2017
The problem Chevrolet faces this year is in its strength of depth among teams. On the short ovals, Penske and Chevrolet still clearly have the advantage but elsewhere, the Honda teams have stepped up.
It’s somewhat intriguing that Honda has five teams – Ganassi, Andretti, RLL, Coyne and Schmidt Peterson – and all but Ganassi have won a race this year.
Honda has five wins in eight races this year, which comes after a year when Chevrolet won 14 races to Honda’s two in 2016, and 11-5 in 2015. It’s a perfect four-for-four on street courses with only Toronto on July 16 to come.
And having won the Indianapolis 500, Honda now has three IndyCar wins in eight days, with Sato’s win at Indianapolis hugely important for both Honda of Japan and America. A loss there would have been a bitter pill to swallow, and Sato’s win defeating Helio Castroneves’ Chevrolet was big from a big-picture standpoint, especially as Honda endured a month of reliability issues and had three more failures in the race.
Honda also led the manufacturer’s championship, 480 to 471, going into Detroit and that lead should increase leaving it. Chevrolet has won each of the five manufacturer’s championships in the last five seasons, 2012 to 2016, but appears to be under threat in search of the six-pack this year.
President of Honda Performance Development Art St. Cyr and a number of other key Honda officials were on site in Detroit this weekend and hailed the overall weekend performance.
“This series is so competitive, it is extremely rare when a driver and team combine to dominate a weekend as Graham [Rahal] did here in Detroit,” he said.
“Combined with our win at last week’s Indianapolis 500, yesterday’s historic first victory for the Acura NSX GT3 in sports car racing, and our 1-2- 3 IndyCar sweep on Saturday, it’s been a very memorable eight days for everyone at Honda Performance Development. Congratulations to Graham, to Scott [Dixon] for a gritty effort in both races, and to Takuma for coming off a hectic Indy 500 ‘Champion’s Tour’ to perform very well this weekend.”
As the Verizon IndyCar Series heads into its third consecutive race weekend where “TBA” is present on Dale Coyne Racing’s No. 18 Honda, with the team set to field quite possibly its fourth different driver in as many weekends, one name you won’t see filling the entry blank is Tristan Vautier.
Vautier’s name came up a bit during the month of May because he seemed a natural fit as the injury replacement for Sebastien Bourdais, his French countryman, after Bourdais’ crash in qualifying that caused pelvic fractures and a hip injury, leaving him sidelined for the next few months.
His name was also top of mind as the only one of the last six Indy Lights champions from 2011 to 2016 not yet set in a ride for the Indianapolis 500 – Josef Newgarden (2011), Sage Karam (2013), Gabby Chaves (2014), Spencer Pigot (2015) and Ed Jones (2016) were all in the field.
As he was on site in Indianapolis for most of the month, it seemed either Vautier or James Davison would get the call to drive in the Indianapolis 500, thus resuming the two drivers’ quirky 2015 when both were part of Coyne’s lineup under abnormal circumstances. Davison got the call instead and drove from last on the grid up to the lead before crashing out.
But for Vautier, the missed opportunity there for what would have been a one-off entry back into open-wheel wasn’t as stinging as it would have been in past years.
Instead, the 27-year-old Frenchman who lived in Florida and Las Vegas before is now in Mooresville, N.C., not far from Charlotte, fully immersed in his new role as lead driver and coach with SunEnergy1 Racing, one of the newest teams on the block in the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship, in the team’s No. 75 Mercedes-AMG GT3.
Vautier’s career wilderness the last three years after his lone full IndyCar season in 2013 now sees him back in a full-time ride for the first time since, this year. In-between it’s been an odyssey of occasional drives with Mazda, in IndyCar with Coyne in 2015, and most recently in sports cars with Mercedes-AMG.
A chance opportunity arose at the 2016 Rolex 24 at Daytona with Kenny Habul’s SunEnergy1 Racing program as two big names who were meant to race with him fell through.
“(Kenny) rented a car (an Audi R8 LMS) from Stevenson for the 24 Hours of Daytona,” Vautier told NBC Sports. “I didn’t have a ride for Daytona, and I was going to the Roar and he was meant to drive with Will Power and Denny Hamlin, but they both couldn’t make it, so they tested me at the Roar. It worked out well, so I did the 2016 Daytona with him.
“Then he decided to buy a Mercedes, and I have been racing it all year in Europe.”
Vautier’s first full season with the new Mercedes-AMG GT3 came in Europe last year with Jerome Policand’s Team AKKA-ASP squad, which has fielded a number of drivers with an open-wheel pedigree such as Felix Rosenqvist, Daniel Juncadella, Felix Serralles and Raffaele Marciello.
In 2016, Vautier raced with AKKA-ASP and Mercedes in the Blancpain GT Series Sprint Cup, and scored his first win with Rosenqvist in the season finale at Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya. The other highlight of his season came at the TOTAL Spa 24 Hours, where he finished second overall with Rosenqvist and Renger van der Zande.
Although the schedule was only a handful of weekends, it kept Vautier busy and plugged into the Mercedes-AMG platform.
The opportunity for Vautier’s drive with Habul to arise this year grew over the course of 2016 as Habul acquired one of the new chassis, set to premiere in America this year. Differences such as the tires – Pirelli in Blancpain vs. Continental in IMSA – require a bit of getting used to, but that’s been part of the learning process.
The harder part has been building the team from the ground up, as a first-year team in IMSA up against several heavyweights with years of experience.
“Kenny ordered the car in mid-October, he called me mid-October as well. I moved to North Carolina, to Mooresville, the start of November,” Vautier said. “At first, we had just the car and Kenny has some equipment from his NASCAR stuff, but yeah we had the car, we had a mechanic from Germany that had worked on Mercedes setting everything up, and we had a small structure.
“The first test at Daytona we were just an EZ-up and just a few things. Very quickly, the team went through a quick building process finding people. It was not easy to find great people straight away, obviously, when you’re a new team.
“But, at the same time, there were also IMSA teams who didn’t have programs together yet and so some guys were let down, so it allowed us to get a few guys that worked for IMSA teams so that really helped us have good people.
“It was very interesting for me because all winter I was at the shop, helping anywhere I can as well, outside of the car. I thought it was quite interesting to be involved from ground zero, at the start of a race team. Kenny is new to IMSA but we have quite a few people that have experience in the championship so that has helped us get up to speed.”
It’s been an interesting start to the season the first five races. Vautier set a track record in Sebring with a sub-2-minute lap, an impressive 1:59.738 lap which was 0.7 up on second place. He, Habul and Boris Said banked their first podium there. A penalty negated potential success in Long Beach, while COTA produced a comeback drive from outside the top-10 following a fueling issue on a pit stop to the second podium there (video below).
Detroit this past weekend was tougher with the wheels collapsing pre-race in a bizarre moment, and then reported brake failure sending Habul into a luckless and innocent bystander, van der Zande’s No. 90 VISIT FLORIDA Racing Riley Mk. 30 Gibson. On Tuesday morning, Habul was placed on three races probation from IMSA for unjustifiable risk (Rule 30.6).
“In some ways, it’s been surprising. If somebody had offered us in January that after four races we would have two podiums, we would have taken the deal!” Vautier laughed.
“At the same time, our speed has been so strong since the start of the year that it’s been a disappointment, especially in Austin, just because we had an issue with fueling in that last pit stop and we lost 10 seconds, if not, we really think we would have won the race.
“So that feels bittersweet because at one point we were in the pits fixing the car because a prototype had hit us at the start of the race, so we didn’t think we had the podium, and then we finish on the podium.”
Habul, who’s grown the SunEnergy1 solar business, has gotten back into racing himself in recent years. Growing up in Australia, he raced in Formula Ford and Formula 3, and is a veteran of the Gold Coast circuit at Surfers’ Paradise. His recent starts outside of sports cars have come in the NASCAR Xfinity Series road course races.
“Every day I’m at the shop, I’m actually immersed in the solar business,” Vautier said. “It’s pretty interesting, the whole industry and Kenny’s business, but what’s more interesting is how quickly he’s been able to succeed in the business and make his company grow and how busy he is. He’s just hustling all the time. He’s like a warrior.
“He has some habits from NASCAR road courses that are quite different from the driving styles in these cars, which actually have hurt him at first, but the good thing is as soon as you tell him to do something, first off he listens, but he manages to apply it. He picks it up very easily, so that’s why I think he’s improved so quickly.”
Vautier misses the open-wheel world a bit but has no major regrets about moving into the sports car world.
“I don’t really have regrets. Obviously in racing you can always think back to what you should have done differently in a race. But in terms of my career itself, I pushed like hell, I did everything I could to stay in IndyCar, to get more opportunities,” he said. “So, I cannot look back and say I didn’t give it 100%, I always did.
“So no, it’s very easy to move on and to be honest with you, I just enjoy sports cars a lot. You miss driving the IndyCar because the cars are just so fast, so fun to drive, but I’m lucky because in this series, both in IMSA and in Blancpain, you get 55 cars in the same class. At Monza there were 30 cars within one second in qualifying!
“What I was scared to miss was the competitiveness, you know, like that pressure you get. But actually I still have that in sports cars because you still have drivers that would or could be in IndyCar.
“In Blancpain, all the drivers fighting at the front are guys that could have, or were close to making it to F1 or top open wheel and just didn’t make it. They’re probably as good as the guys that made it. If you look at the whole field, it’s a lot of drivers like that, like me.”
Vautier continues with AKKA-ASP this year with Serralles and Juncadella in the Blancpain GT Series Endurance Cup. They’ve raced at Monza and Silverstone this year with Paul Ricard (June 23-24), Spa (July 27-30) and Barcelona (Sept. 30-Oct. 1) still to come.
The IMSA GTD schedule has five rounds down and seven more to go, and no conflicts for Vautier in either series.
If he returns to IndyCar he’d welcome it, but for once, he actually knows what he’s doing beyond week-to-week, which has been a good thing.
“After my rookie season in IndyCar, it’s true, I’ve always had something, but it’s been very last minute and very up and down, very part time. Last year was good. I had a decent program in Europe, even if there was not many races,” he said.
“I have to say, being the 25th of December, like having my Christmas lunch or my Christmas Eve dinner and knowing exactly what I was going to do felt really like a luxury because I have not had that since 2013 I think! Even in ’13 I didn’t have my IndyCar deal yet at Christmas, so 2012 was the last time where, at Christmas, I knew my program exactly. So, that felt really nice.
“It was nice, also, to have testing since it’s the same since 2012, since my Indy Lights season where I had everything signed early, I always jump in the cars in February or March and this time we’ve had testing in November and December. Obviously we’ve had so much to take in as a new team, so I couldn’t say we showed up to the first race completely prepared, but it still felt really nice to be able to be in the groove already when we showed up at Daytona.
“If I get the chance to go back I would like it, and it’s good because both my teams in Europe and here, with Kenny, are supportive of me and would like to see me succeed if I could maybe to back. But, to be honest, I’m here and I’m giving 100% and in the moment I don’t think about IndyCar too much, I just think about winning races and doing the best job I can here for Kenny.”