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DiZinno: Reflecting on racing’s rapid month of change

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My MotorSportsTalk colleague Luke Smith and I have had an internal running joke about this year, where we insert another word in-between 20 and 17 to describe the sheer insanity in racing (among other world topics) this year has been.

The last month in particular, however, has brought more winds of seismic change to the motorsports landscape than any I’ve seen in 20-plus years as a fan, and 12 as a reporter.

No matter the discipline of motorsport, the tidal wave of change is coming – and it’s up to the series’ decision makers to work on the next steps for success.

NASCAR: Where fewer dollars make more sense in youth movement

KANSAS CITY, KS – OCTOBER 16: Dale Earnhardt Jr. talks with Alex Bowman, driver of the #88 Nationwide Chevrolet, on the grid prior to the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Hollywood Casino 400 at Kansas Speedway on October 16, 2016 in Kansas City, Kansas. (Photo by Jason Hanna/Getty Images)

NASCAR’s silly season in 2018 combines the elements of sponsors being willing to spend less money for a certain number of races, high-priced veterans out of contract and a glut of young talent now ready to break through all happening at once.

Boiled down simply by Dale Earnhardt Jr., who will head to NBC Sports next year at the end of his full-time driving career, it’s a simple matter of economics.

“You can’t pay a driver $5 to $8 million a year if you ain’t got but $10 million worth of sponsorship. You can’t. That ain’t going to work. Guys aren’t getting $20, $30, $40 million a year on sponsorship. Owners aren’t getting that anymore,” Earnhardt Jr. said at Watkins Glen, via NASCAR Talk.

With young talent come cheaper price tags and a next generation of stars.

Kyle Larson, Ryan Blaney, Chase Elliott and Ricky Stenhouse Jr. at least have multiple years under their belts. Erik Jones and Daniel Suarez are developing in their first full seasons. Alex Bowman and William Byron arrive in their best opportunity full-time next year. One hopes others, such as Darrell Wallace Jr. for instance, get their shot as well.

The departures of Earnhardt Jr., Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart, Carl Edwards, and Greg Biffle are there, and with Matt Kenseth, Kasey Kahne and Kurt Busch all facing free agency, suddenly there are a lot of fans that will need a new driver to support. The race will be on between these young guns to capture the enthusiasm to drive NASCAR’s major generational shift in one of the series’ grids biggest upheavals.

INDYCAR: A number of big questions loom, as internal excitement remains high

The 2018 Verizon IndyCar Series chassis in a Chevrolet livery. Photo: IndyCar

Quite how the Verizon IndyCar Series progresses for the final month of 2017 and into the start of 2018 is another big question mark.

There’s a championship to sort out first; starting with this weekend’s ABC Supply 500, there’s three races in as many weeks that should begin to sort out the realistic title contenders. With four races to play, seven drivers could lay claim to this year’s crown but there’s really four that are close, with three others on the fringe.

The title battle isn’t necessarily IndyCar’s top story heading into its final month of the year though, when looking at the big picture.

Three successful tests of the new 2018 Dallara universal aero kit have built excitement more about the future as the manufacturer aero kit era reaches, some would argue, its merciful conclusion after three years.

The question over Verizon’s continuation as title sponsor beyond 2018 lingers, and so too does the question of what the series will develop in regards to its new TV deal, which is also set to end after 2018. INDYCAR made several long-term partnership extension announcements at the start of the year (Dallara, Firestone, Honda and Chevrolet) but these two elements are ones that have to get sorted soon.

Additionally, with Long Beach now set to continue on the IndyCar calendar following a new agreement reached between the Long Beach City Council and the Grand Prix Association of Long Beach, it sets into motion the question of what tracks get renewed next for long-term deals. INDYCAR has finally, after 20 years of upheaval in the schedule, reached stability and date equity with most tracks – this needs to be a priority going forward as tracks, promoters and the sanctioning body all look to keep working together.

F1: New owners, newer stars, and the rivalry we’ve been waiting for

NORTHAMPTON, ENGLAND – JULY 15: Third place qualifier Sebastian Vettel of Germany and Ferrari talks with pole position qualifier Lewis Hamilton of Great Britain and Mercedes GP in parc ferme after qualifying for the Formula One Grand Prix of Great Britain at Silverstone on July 15, 2017 in Northampton, England. (Photo by Dan Mullan/Getty Images)

Formula 1’s major news tidal wave came earlier this year with the change at the top from Bernie Ecclestone to Liberty Media, the new group having made headlines and some interesting changes throughout the year. A focus on fans and a number of in-weekend changes have been the selling points.

Elsewhere it’s been the year on-track that’s been the top story with Lewis Hamilton and Sebastian Vettel properly contending for this year’s title as the headline act. It feels as though this was predestined to occur at some point once Ferrari got its act together and now that it has, it’s forced Mercedes to raise its game after competing against each other. Valtteri Bottas has more than served as a capable replacement for outgoing World Champion Nico Rosberg, and bizarrely, Rosberg’s absence hasn’t loomed large over the season.

For the future, F1’s news peg could come with the emergence of more young – or revived – stars coming into the championship. The performances of Charles Leclerc in F2 and Lando Norris, the F3 teenager, have mouths watering; meanwhile a potential race return for Robert Kubica also has activated the hype train on full bore. Its post-2020 engine formula is also a talking point, although perhaps not immediately.

FORMULA E: The electric, supersonic manufacturer boom?

Photo: Steven Tee/LAT/Formula E

The FIA Formula E Championship has, in an incredibly short period of time, gone from a newly debuting mystery on the worldwide motorsport stage to a desired platform for manufacturers to enter into.

The recent confirmations that Mercedes-Benz (having also announced the end of its DTM program after 2018) and Porsche (having announced the end of its LMP1 program after 2017) will join the championship in future years, coupled with fellow German manufacturers Audi and BMW, and in addition to the already active manufacturers including Renault, Jaguar, DS, Mahindra and Venturi means this is now the “hotbed de jour” for manufacturers to develop electric technology to go into future road cars.

Quite how this sudden surge of manufacturer interest will further the series on a worldwide stage may come down to activation, as we’ve seen with booms and busts in other championships before. When a series has that high level of investment from sponsors or manufacturers, it takes off.

For the moment, while Formula E generates a wealth of internal buzz, it hasn’t yet ascended to the level of international consciousness beyond its hardcore participants, media and fans. The fascinating perspectives about Formula E’s evolution are outlined here in columns from Smith and Parker Kligerman, who were both in Red Hook for the New York City ePrix.

It’s a championship to watch going forward because of all this new involvement, but it must guard against a spending arms race and also find a way to make electric racing “sexy” and “cool” – a bit beyond the current product it has offered on display. It says something about the sheer shock of how different this series is when its crash compilation video for season three produces the loudest moments on the circuit, rather than the racing itself.

FIA WEC/LE MANS: Reset needed following Porsche’s LMP1 pullout

LE MANS, FRANCE – JUNE 17: (EDITORIAL USE ONLY) In this handout image provided by Red Bull, The #7 and #8 Toyota TS050`s lead the #1 and #2 Porsche 919`s at the rolling start of the 24 Hours of Le Mans, the third round of the 2017 FIA World Endurance Championship at Circuit de la Sarthe on June 17, 2017 in Le Mans, France. (Photo by Dean Treml/Red Bull via Getty Images)

The writing has been on the wall for LMP1 hybrid the last couple years, as the evolution to the category all began after a fascinating few months in 2015.

By mid-summer 2015, a new LMP2 formula was introduced to debut this year, which reduced the number of constructors down to a maximum of four, but with higher top speeds having been produced from the standardized Gibson V8 engine. At the same time, at the 24 Hours of Le Mans, the LMP1 field featured 14 cars – a grid of three Audis, Porsches and Nissans apiece with a pair of Toyotas making up 11 hybrid entries, and three more privateer cars from Rebellion and ByKolles.

It’s all evolved from there. Nissan, whose ultimately one-off front-engined GT-R LM NISMO never ran with a working hybrid system, announced the end of its efforts in December of 2015. That came as the VW “diesel gate” scandal was beginning to take earnest and take root across all the VAG’s motorsport programs. It was always unsustainable that VAG would have competing manufacturers from under its parent company racing against each other; Audi’s drawdown came first at the end of 2016 and now, Porsche has announced its to do likewise at the end of this year.

Toyota now stands alone within the LMP1 hybrid space, still devoid of a Le Mans overall win and even if it achieves one next year, with the asterisk it will have come only against privateer competition within the category. It’s an unfortunate spot for the likable German-based team and Japanese manufacturer to be stuck in.

In its sixth season, the FIA WEC now meets a sincere fork in the road, with its road map to be announced next round at Mexico City a critical one to determine the next course of action for the championship without the majority of its marquee class present. Those next steps will determine whether the championship progresses forward down a sustainable, viable path or meet a similar fate as prior world sports car championships in the past.

IMSA, PWC: American sports car series look to seize their chances domestically

Photo courtesy of IMSA

It’d be hard to chronicle a better month for IMSA, and its headline IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship, than what has taken place in its last month. The confirmation of two marquee prototype programs in Team Penske with Acura and Joest Racing with Mazda add an extra degree of legitimacy after what’s already been a successful debut year for the Daytona Prototype international (DPi) platform. A return to Mid-Ohio also is a strong news peg.

Meanwhile North America’s primary sprint race sports car series, Pirelli World Challenge, has grown its car count by leaps and bounds – but it’s also made a good thing that was easy to follow a bit more complex in recent years. As it continues to develop as a championship, it has to be careful not to loose the roots that made it so rich for growth in the first place, as it maneuvers or positions itself towards having more standalone weekends and SprintX races away from its classic, single-driver, 50-minute format.

The nice thing for both these series is there is room for both, and is avoiding overlapping, as they continue to evolve for 2018 and beyond.

CJ Wilson’s epic month features Spa, Le Mans, McLaren gamer challenge

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The post-baseball life is not bad for CJ Wilson, who’s racing full-time now that he’s retired from Major League Baseball.

Wilson races domestically in the IMSA Porsche GT3 Cup Challenge USA by Yokohama and he’s also racing with United Autosports, co-driving a Ligier JS P3 with Andrew Evans in the Brands Hatch, Spa and Snetterton rounds of the Henderson Insurance LMP3 Cup Championship.

Wilson had his Spa debut earlier this month in the LMP3 car. A further link-out recapping Wilson’s month of European adventures is here.

More recently Wilson, who owns several automotive dealerships including McLaren Scottsdale, has partnered with McLaren’s recently launched “World’s Fastest Gamer” competition to create the CJ Wilson Racing 570 Challenge, powered by McLaren Scottsdale.

The five-race series runs in July and August at Daytona, Sebring, Road America, Sonoma and Road Atlanta, with qualifying beginning July 3 on Forza Motorsport 6 for the XBox One.

“Racing is unlike any other sport, for example there is no way to accurately simulate baseball whereas the entirety of your driving inputs and controls can be tweaked and honed online and judged or graded,” Wilson said in a release.

“You can race in the simulator exactly as you would at Silverstone, COTA, or Monaco. While competing at the highest levels of Motorsport is a completely unique experience- with today’s simulator and even console technology- the merging between simulation and reality is closer than ever.”

Executive Director of McLaren Technology Group, Zak Brown added, “McLaren group is committed to bring Motorsport to new audiences, and having CJ on board is another step in this process.”

The full release is linked here via CJWR, and here via McLaren. A video that explains “World’s Fastest Gamer” is above; the ultimate achievement for gamers is to become McLaren’s sim driver.

Wilson was also at Le Mans this year for this year’s 24 Hours of Le Mans. We’d advise you to view his Twitter feed, @Str8EdgeRacer, for all the festivities he took part in over the year.

Rayhall: A special, dream win on debut at Le Mans!

Rayhall and Falb win at Le Mans. Photo: United Autosports
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Editor’s note: Sean Rayhall, one of America’s rising driving talents, will file a series of blogs throughout the year chronicling his season in the European Le Mans Series, co-driving with John Falb at Zak Brown and Richard Dean’s United Autosports team in its Ligier JS P3 Nissan. His second blog looks at the team’s voyage to the Michelin Le Mans Cup Road to Le Mans race, which sees LMP3 and GT3 cars tackle the Circuit de la Sarthe. His first blog after Silverstone is linked here.  

So I don’t think many drivers have weeks like these their first time at Le Mans! Anyway, I’ll attempt to recap.

I arrived in Le Mans by myself Tuesday because John (Falb) had a later flight and did the European train thing to get to the hotel. Well to be honest, it wasn’t really a hotel; it was a castle. So I did a bit of running around the castle to get rid of jet lag, and had a nice dinner with our United Autosports team.

Photo courtesy Sean Rayhall

The next day, Wednesday, was very long. Our first practice session was at 8:30 p.m., and that didn’t go exactly as planned. The first lap I bed in the brakes, but the second lap we had an engine failure coming out of Tertre Rouge. Our run plan was for me to do the entire first session and John to do the second, so this meant I was going to have no laps before qualifying to learn it or dial in the car. But it worked out despite this minor setback; I ended up qualifying sixth in the first session, and John qualified second in the Bronze session, which was absolutely remarkable.

I had a lot of faith in United Autosports being able to get us on the podium after working all night and not even getting to go back to the hotel for a shower, I really wanted to make something happen for the guys.

Thursday was our first of two roughly one-hour races, with the second race on Saturday morning before the 24-hour race. In race one, John had a great stint, which put me in a good position leaving the pits in fourth place. From there I was able to pass the for the lead by the end of the second lap of my stint and make a gap.

Photo: United Autosports

When our guys came over the radio and said I was leading, I could not believe it. It was like Indy Lights at the Indy GP all over again (Editor’s note; Rayhall won race two at IMS with 8Star Motorsports in 2015) and everything got really quiet in the car and I just went to work for the rest of the stint to win the race.

Winning in Europe is one thing, but winning at Le Mans is another… and at that moment it hit me once I got on the victory podium.

Photo: United Autosports

Hearing the U.S. national anthem and having the American flag fly above us was very surreal. I still can’t really wrap my finger around what exactly I felt that day, but I can tell you it was special.

For race two, John once again opened for us with another fantastic stint before we got blocked in the pits while we tried to leave. That cost us 10-12 seconds in total, in which track position wise kept us from being able to fight with the Norma. So after pushing as hard as I could, we ended up second in race two.

It is the first time I’ve truly been happy with second, because the way the BOP was, we were about 10 kph down on the straightway compared to the Norma, one of the other LMP3 chassis. For us, in reality, it felt like a win because with all of Le Mans’ long straights, it’s impossible to catch a car that has that much more top speed.

I have to thank United Autosports for their work this week, staying at the track all night with zero sleep and getting us a car to win after that is just special. Also John Falb drove flawlessly, by far the best drive of his entire life the whole weekend. Thanks to Sports Insure, AERO Paint, Ligier UK, and Oreca gear for giving us the chance to do this!

Oh yeah, and you can imagine the night we had after. I don’t think the celebration on the podium really gives you the full effect of the fun we had the next few nights!

I’ll check in again soon. Thanks for reading!

Photo: United Autosports

Bizarre 2017 Le Mans adds new twist: Driver mistaken as marshal

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The 2017 24 Hours of Le Mans ended two days ago but has had two post-script items that only add to the bizarre nature of this year’s race.

On Monday, it was the disqualification of Vaillante Rebellion’s No. 13 Oreca 07 Gibson from an overall podium (third place) and second in LMP2 following bodywork modification to address a starter issue.

On Tuesday, it’s the emergence of video to show a driver in a nearly identical firesuit to that of a pit lane or corner marshal giving a thumbs up to Kamui Kobayashi’s No. 7 Toyota TS050 Hybrid under a safety car period that may have led to the Toyota’s eventual clutch failure.

Via Eurosport, it shows Kobayashi’s car stopped at pit out with a pit lane marshal in the background. Meanwhile after a couple seconds, Vincent Capillaire, an LMP2 class driver in the So24! and FLEX-BOX backed No. 45 Algarve Pro Racing Ligier JS P217 Gibson, emerged from his pit garage to give Kobayashi a thumbs up.

However the Japanese driver appeared to mistake that sign of encouragement as an OK to leave the pit lane and return to the race course. The orange and black firesuit Capillaire had on was almost identical to the marshal’s, albeit with the FLEX-BOX black bar and branding a little lower on the suit.

Under a safety car period at Le Mans, any car that pits is held at pit out with a red light, until a green light flashes to be released. This is different from the slow zones that have become a recent staple of this race, which help prevent full safety car periods where the full 8.4-mile Circuit de la Sarthe is slowed. Unless a slow zone is present on the front straight, there are no pit lane restrictions and drivers can enter and exit pit lane in a normal manner.

Capillaire attempted to explain his action on his Facebook page.

“Saturday evening, during the race, I was waiting for my relay, helmet on the head at my box,” Capillaire said, with the French translated to English.

“I wanted to show my encouragement to the leader car, stopped at red light a few meters in front of my box. .
It was a spontaneous encouragement mark as it happens between pilots.

“I was fined by Stewards for this gesture and I admit it was inopportune. I regret that.”

Kobayashi had started and stopped his car multiple times as a result; the clutch issue that followed came as an apparent result of this issue.

“The problem is that he was at the pit exit, so he was in pit mode where we started in electric, which is like the car was, he was in a mode which normally should not be used, so he has done several restarts with the clutch and the combustion engine,” Toyota technical director Pascal Vasselon told Sportscar365, and later expanded that this burned up the clutch.

Capillaire, one of the youngest drivers in the field in American teenager Matt McMurry (19; turns 20 in November) and the oldest driver in the field in U.S.-based South African Mark Patterson (65), finished 16th in the 25-car LMP2 class and 33rd on the road of the 49 cars that finished and 60 that started, though will move up one position as a result of the Rebellion disqualification from Monday.

Toyota, meanwhile, could only feel regret after yet another lost opportunity.

“We will analyze what went wrong because we cannot accept a double retirement like that during the night,” team president Toshio Sato said in the team’s post-race release.

“We will come back stronger and more determined than ever; our Le Mans challenge will continue.”

Rebellion bounced from second in LMP2, third overall at Le Mans

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Vaillante Rebellion’s No. 13 Oreca 07 Gibson has been disqualified following post-race technical inspection at this year’s 24 Hours of Le Mans.

The car was found to have modified bodywork on the engine cover in the form of a hole cut, which could help aid mechanics in restarting the car after pit stops and with starter issues having popped up earlier.

Here’s the formal release from the ACO:

During the post-race technical checks, certain irregularities were detected on the Vaillante Rebellion team’s #13 Oreca 07-Gibson, resulting in the car’s disqualification from the 2017 24 Hours of Le Mans.

Two infractions were noted by the technical marshals:

  • Modification to the body, found to be in technical non-compliance (decision of the stewards #58)
  • Unauthorized intervention in the closed park after the race (decision of the stewards #59)

The Vaillante Rebellion has confirmed its intention to file an appeal with the officials.

This disqualification causes a change to the overall classification for the 2017 24 Hours of Le Mans. Jackie Chan DC Racing’s second car, the #37 driven by Cheng-Gommendy-Brundle, now claims the third step on the podium just behind its sister car, the #38, and the #2 Porsche 919 Hybrid.

With the car in breach of regulations, the No. 13 car shared by Nelson Piquet Jr., Mathias Beche and David Heinemeier Hansson has now lost second place in LMP2 and third place overall.

DHH posted a couple tweets below; the team added it would have more to say once the investigation was complete.

Jackie Chan DC Racing now finishes 1-2 in LMP2 and 2-3 overall, the No. 37 Oreca of David Cheng, Tristan Gommendy and Alex Brundle the beneficiary, while Signatech Alpine’s No. 35 Alpine A470 of Nelson Panciatici, Pierre Ragues and Andre Negrao gets an LMP2 podium after all despite Negrao’s late off-course excursion at Arnage corner.