IMSA: Monterey Weekend Observations

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The TUDOR United SportsCar Championship’s fourth round of the 2014 season took place at historic and picturesque Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca in Monterey. A few thoughts and observations gleaned from the weekend:

  • P2 gets on the board. Perhaps it wasn’t said publicly by too many people, but from some conversations throughout the paddock before the weekend, the sentiment going in was “win or bust” for P2-spec cars in the combined Prototype class of DPs and P2s. Through three races, DPs had a clear edge at two, but at Sebring the BoP was nailed to where P2s had a shot to win – just not the right timing. Heading into the weekend, Chevrolet (1.0mm) and Ford (0.9mm) received minor power reductions and smaller air restrictors. The balance changed during the race to where the DPs – which with their torque and horsepower advantage at Long Beach could run away down the straights there – were barely able to hold off the P2s, whose aero and cornering advantages played to their strengths this weekend. It was still difficult to overtake – witness Gustavo Yacaman’s heroics that went every which way to try to pass Michael Valiante in the opening 15 minutes – but when it was achieved by Johannes van Overbeek on Jordan Taylor in the final 15, it was satisfying to know it could be done. Put that in the positive category.
  • But JVO was, on May the 4th, the final T.I.E. Fighter left in the galaxy. Star Wars nerds (clearly not one of my good friends, who shall remain nameless, and hasn’t seen any) can correct me if I botched the joke, but if you take the view of DPs as “the death star” and P2s as “the T.I.E. Fighters,” than van Overbeek, like Obi Won Kenobi, was P2’s last hope on unofficial “Star Wars Day.” One-by-one the P2s dropped like flies. The No. 07 Mazda SKYACTIV-D, No. 42 OAK Racing Morgan Nissan and No. 1 ESM HPD ARX-03b fell out of the running, and with the No. 70 Mazda not threatening for the overall win and Muscle Milk Pickett Racing withdrawn entirely, van Overbeek was the lone wolf with six other DPs breathing down his neck. And like Audi versus a trio of Peugeots in the 2011 24 Hours of Le Mans, the lone ranger prevailed.
  • Split races? A good call for equitable coverage. In the Rolex 24 at Daytona and Mobil 1 Twelve Hours of Sebring, two of the four classes got major ink – the overall winners, and the class where controversy entered the equation. But on Sunday, with PC/GTD and P/GTLM races, we got a pair of two-hour shows that were low on cautions, high on drama and really, to be honest, were easier to cover than all four at one time. I think the fans got a good show, too, and judging by the grounds compared to the last four years, it seemed as though there was an uptick. The weekend schedule needs some massaging – an early week load-in followed by no on-track TUDOR activity until Saturday frustrated many – but it was a promising first start with this format. Light for race photography wasn’t brilliant, though, especially compared to the race’s past six, four, or two-hour and 45-minute formats.
  • About the schedule… Perhaps the biggest question still on the table, format-wise, leaving the weekend was asking why the two one-hour practice sessions on Saturday featured all 50-plus cars, yet qualifying would be run as normal in four segments and the races split in half? Suffice to say there were not a lot of happy campers in the paddock about this, but to give credit to the field, there weren’t the entirely high volume of incidents predicted. Although as one driver told me, “there’s not enough time to have a ton of incidents.”
  • A voice I wish we didn’t need to hear. For the third time in four races, IMSA VP of Competition and Technical Regulations Scot Elkins was a visitor to the media center post-race, after an hour-long review process of the podium in GTLM to determine whether the No. 55 BMW, the No. 911 Porsche, or both, would be penalized for late race On-Track Incidents. Elkins has one of the most thankless tasks in motorsports and, for the most part, has done a very good job of it over the years. But when a series official is called in to explain something post-race this frequently, it’s not beneficial for the series, the media, or the assembled PR reps who all hang on every word.
  • Stars of the weekend. Johannes van Overbeek, Renger van der Zande, Sean Rayhall, Bruno Junqueira, Gustavo Yacaman, Joel Miller, and Ed Brown in the combined P and PC ranks for stellar, clean or exciting drives beyond their usual efforts. Then Dane Cameron, Spencer Pumpelly, Christopher Haase, Pierre Kaffer and Dion von Moltke in the GTLM and GTD ranks. Tip of the hat as well to Ryan Eversley, who didn’t get to race but set impressive practice lap times in PC debut, finished seventh and ahead of fellow Honda runner Michael Valiante in CTSC ST, then snarked during the PC/GTD race from Magnus Racing’s Twitter account.
  • Heartbreak hotel. Pumpelly (again) and Ryan Dalziel had drives worthy of wins but after running out of fuel and having the transmission seize up, their days went begging.
  • Upon further review… When Alex Brundle tried to stick the OAK Racing Morgan Nissan down the inside at the Corkscrew, he speared into Joao Barbosa’s Action Express Corvette and Miller’s Mazda, neither of which could see him coming. It looked ambitious at the time, to put it politely, but made more sense in context after several laps earlier, Westbrook ran Brundle wide off Turn 5. At the Corkscrew, Brundle’s move was versus Westbrook, and took out two other hapless victims. A weird moment for sure, and a shame for Brundle’s co-driver Yacaman, who’d put OAK in position to win early on.
  • To go or not to go? Sean Rayhall’s passing attempt at Turn 10 of slower GTD traffic could also be chalked up to unbridled enthusiasm getting the better of him. But, as he said post-race, he had a gap and went for it. Better to find a guy who’s not afraid to go for the gap and has the pace on hand than to try to teach someone how to go for it. It was an otherwise flawless drive the for 8Star Motorsports rookie.

IMSA’s schedule shifts a bit over the next month. CTSC races next at Lime Rock May 24, with the TUDOR Championship P and GTD classes racing at Detroit May 31. PC races again in Kansas June 7, and the GTLM class does not race again until June 29 at Watkins Glen.

Coyne transitioning from underdog to Indy 500 threat

Photo: IndyCar
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For most of the team’s existence, Dale Coyne Racing has been the Chicago Cubs of American Open Wheel Racing – a team whose history was more defined by failures, at times comically so, than success.

The last decade, however, has seen the tide completely change. In 2007, they scored three podium finishes with Bruno Junqueira. In 2009, they won at Watkins Glen with the late Justin Wilson.

The combination won again at Texas Motor Speedway in 2012, and finished sixth in the 2013 Verizon IndyCar Series championship. That same year, Mike Conway took a shock win for them in Race 1 at the Chevrolet Dual in Detroit.

Carlos Huertas scored an upset win for them in Race 1 at the Houston double-header in 2014, and while 2015 and 2016 yielded no wins, Tristan Vautier and Conor Daly gave them several strong runs – Vautier’s best finish was fourth in Race 2 at Detroit, while Daly finished second in Race 1 at Detroit, finished fourth at Watkins Glen, and scored a trio of sixth-place finishes at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Road Course, Race 2 at Detroit, and the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course.

And 2017 was set to possibly be the best year the team has ever had. Sebastien Bourdais gave the team a popular win in the season-opening Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg, and then rookie Ed Jones scored back-to-back top tens – 10th and sixth – at St. Pete and the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach to start his career.

But, things started unraveling at the Indianapolis 500. Bourdais appeared set to be in the Fast Nine Pole Shootout during his first qualifying run – both of his first two laps were above 231 mph –  before his horrifying crash in Turn 2.

While Jones qualified an impressive 11th and finished an even more impressive third, results for the rest of the season became hard to come by – Jones only scored two more Top 10s, with a best result of seventh at Road America.

But, retooled for 2018, the Coyne team is a legitimate threat at the 102nd Running of the Indianapolis 500.

Bourdais, whose No. 18 Honda features new sponsorship from SealMaster and now ownership partners in Jimmy Vasser and James “Sulli” Sullivan, has a win already, again at St. Pete, and sits third in the championship.

And Bourdais may also be Honda’s best hope, given that he was the fastest Honda in qualifying – he’ll start fifth behind Ed Carpenter, Simon Pagenaud, Will Power, and Josef Newgarden.

“I think it speaks volumes about their work, their passion and their dedication to this program, Dale (Coyne), Jimmy (Vasser) and Sulli (James Sullivan) and everybody from top to bottom. I can’t thank them enough for the opportunity, for the support,” Bourdais said of the team’s effort.

Rookie Zachary Claman De Melo has been progressing nicely, and his Month of May has been very solid – he finished 12th at the INDYCAR Grand Prix on the IMS Road Course and qualified a strong 13th for the “500.”

“It’s been surreal to be here as rookie. I’m a bit at a loss for words,” Claman De Melo revealed after qualifying. “The fans, driving around this place, being with the team, everything is amazing. I have a great engineer, a great group of experienced mechanics at Dale Coyne Racing.”

While Conor Daly and Pippa Mann struggled in one-off entries, with Mann getting bumped out of the field in Saturday qualifying, Daly’s entry essentially puts three Coyne cars in the race – Daly’s No. 17 United States Air Force Honda is a Dale Coyne car that has been leased to Thom Burns Racing.

Rest assured, the days of Coyne being an “also ran” are long gone, and a Coyne car ending up in Victory Lane at the biggest race of the year would complete the Chicago Cubs analogy – the Cubs won a World Series title in 2016, and an Indy 500 triumph would be the crowning achievement in Coyne’s career.

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