Kovalainen set for Raikkonen fill-in at Lotus

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Official confirmation is forthcoming from the Lotus team this morning, but it’s opted for a fellow Finn in Heikki Kovalainen to deputize for the injured Kimi Raikkonen in the last 2 Grands Prix of the Formula One season.

Kovalainen, Caterham’s reserve driver, has driven in free practice one in a handful of races this year, but has not made a race start since the 2012 season finale in Brazil. He has six years of F1 race experience and a prior history with Enstone-based Lotus in its previous incarnation as Renault, as both test driver and race driver. He made his race debut with the team in 2007.

The tricky part here is that Kovalainen is under contract to Caterham – the former Lotus. Attempting to break free of the contractual issues that that presents is likely what’s caused the hold-up in the official announcement.

While Kovalainen is a solid, veteran shoe who no doubt can help Lotus in its quest to finish higher up in the Constructor’s Championship, the news is no doubt a gut punch to Lotus’ own reserve driver Davide Valsecchi, the 2012 GP2 champion who will be denied his opportunity for a Grand Prix debut.

Lotus is the only team to have a midseason driver change for the second consecutive year. Its 2012 reserve, Jerome d’Ambrosio, filled in for Romain Grosjean at the Italian Grand Prix. Valsecchi, despite being the obvious choice on paper, has been spurned almost from the get-go.

Autosport had reported Michael Schumacher was asked to fill in, in what would have been another reunion. Schumacher raced for Lotus when it was still called Benetton, from 1991 through 1995, and won his first two World Championships. But, like his comeback that wasn’t in 2009 with Ferrari, the seven-time champ will stay on the sidelines.

Cadillac, Acura battle for top speed as cars back on track for Rolex 24 at Daytona practice

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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – The new hybrid prototypes of Cadillac and Acura battled atop the speed chart as practice resumed Thursday for the Rolex 24 at Daytona.

Chip Ganassi Racing driver Richard Westbrook was fastest Thursday afternoon in the No. 02 Cadillac V-LMDh with a 1-minute, 35.185-second lap around the 12-turn, 3.56-mile road course at Daytona International Speedway.

That pace topped Ricky Taylor’s 1:35.366 lap that topped the Thursday morning session that marked the first time the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship was back on track since qualifying Sunday afternoon that concluded the four-day Roar Before The Rolex 24 test.

In a final session Thursday night, Matt Campbell was fastest (1:35.802) in the No. 7 Porsche Penske Motorsports Porsche 963 but still was off the times set by Westbrook and Taylor.

Punctuated by Tom Blomqvist’s pole position for defending race winner Meyer Shank Racing, the Acura ARX-06s had been fastest for much of the Roar and led four consecutive practice sessions.

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But the times have been extremely tight in the new Grand Touring Prototype (GTP) category that has brought hybrid engines to IMSA’s premier class. Only 0.9 seconds separated the nine LMDh cars in GTP in qualifying, and though the spread slightly widened to 1.378 seconds in Thursday’s practices with teams on varying strategies and preparation, Westbrook still pooh-poohed the importance of speeds.

“It’s always nice to be at the top, but I don’t think it means too much or read too much into it” Westbrook said. “Big fuel tanks in the GTP class this year, so you have no idea what fuel levels people are running. We had a good run, and the car is really enjoyable to drive now. I definitely wasn’t saying that a month ago.

“It really does feel good now. We are working on performance and definitely unlocking some potential, and it just gives us more confidence going into the race. It’s going to be super tight. Everyone’s got the same power, everyone has the same downforce, everyone has the same drag levels and let’s just go race.”

Because teams have put such a premium on reliability, handling mostly has suffered in the GTPs, but Westbrook said the tide had turned Thursday.

“These cars are so competitive, and you were just running it for the sake of running it in the beginning, and there’s so much going on, you don’t really have time to work on performance,” he said. “A lot of emphasis was on durability in the beginning, and rightly so, but now finally we can work on performance, and that’s the same for other manufacturers as well. But we’re worrying about ourselves and improving every run, and I think everybody’s pretty happy with their Cadillac right now.”

Mike Shank, co-owner of Blomqvist’s No. 60 on the pole, said his team still was facing reliability problems despite its speed.

“We address them literally every hour,” Shank said. “We’re addressing some little thing we’re doing better to try to make it last. And also we’re talking about how we race the race, which will be different from years past.

“Just think about every system in the car, I’m not going to say which ones we’re working on, but there are systems in the car that ORECA and HPD are continually trying to improve. By the way, sometimes we put them on the car and take them off before it even goes out on the track because something didn’t work with electronics. There’s so much programming. So many departments have to talk to each other. That bridge gets broken from a code not being totally correct, and the car won’t run. Or the power steering turns off.”

Former Rolex 24 winner Renger van der Zande of Ganassi said it still is a waiting game until the 24-hour race begins Saturday shortly after 1:30 p.m.

“I think the performance of the car is good,” van der Zande said. “No drama. We’re chipping away on setup step by step and the team is in control. It’s crazy out there what people do on the track at the moment. It’s about staying cool and peak at the right moment, and it’s not the right moment yet for that. We’ll keep digging.”


PRACTICE RESULTS:

Click here for Session I (by class)

Click here for Session II (by class)

Click here for Session III (by class)

Combined speeds