IMSA: Road America thoughts and observations

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Much to recap from the IMSA weekend at Road America… so here we go:

  • Kudos to IMSA for prompt, early schedule release: IMSA President/COO Scott Atherton noted during his comments to stakeholders Sunday morning that the future direction and confidence of the series is crafted, in part, by how early the next year’s schedule is released. Fair to say that a mid-August release at Road America – with no plans for change unlike a year ago when the much-derided PC/Prototype Lites race in Kansas was added after the initial schedule reveal – more than lives up to that Atherton statement. Big props to IMSA and the tracks for getting this done and out so soon.
  • About the schedule: The TUDOR Championship schedule is close to perfect. Sure, you’ll have people clamoring for Mid-Ohio or other such courses, but if it doesn’t make business sense for the series, it ain’t gonna happen. The Indianapolis and Kansas draw downs make sense for the reasons Atherton identified. The Continental Tire SportsCar Challenge schedule, by contrast, does leave some room for concern. In three months from Sebring March 20 to Watkins Glen June 27, the series races only once, May 2 at Monterey. That does teams no favors… neither does the run of five race weekends in nine weeks from the Glen June 27 through VIR August 22. Taking care of Continental Tire, a strong series partner, and the teams should have provided them more running time, or at least better-spaced running time.
  • The BoP conundrum: The fact of the matter is, almost no one in the paddock is happy about the current BoP situation – and yet looking from pure data (some great stuff here from Ben Wedge, an engineer, over at NASportscar), it’s really hard to see how IMSA can get it any better given outright lap times are close, but again achieved in different ways. Road America, like most tracks on both this year’s and next year’s schedule – is a high horsepower track, heavy on straights, and that almost universally favors the higher powered, and higher torqued, Daytona Prototypes. The P2 cars may have a shot at pole but have none in the race – it was almost sinister to see how quickly their restart leads were erased. In Prototype anyway, DP teams have the clear pace advantage, and several times this year the Extreme Speed and OAK P2 teams have ran perfect races only to be denied victories (yet an HPD restrictor change of +0.3 mm has left the Nissan-powered Morgan from OAK without much of a chance). You could say the same for DP teams at Mosport or even Monterey. By trying to please everyone, almost no one in the P class is winning as a result of this situation.
  • Shank, Marsh shake bad luck: On-track anyway, it was refreshing to see the Michael Shank Racing and Marsh Racing squads achieve season-best results of second and fourth. You’ll look in the above bullet point and say, “Hey, TDZ, they’re both DPs – of course they should finish that high!” Ah, but it was brilliant strategy on Shank’s part for Ozz Negri and John Pew, and a clean drive from Eric Curran and Burt Frisselle at Marsh, plus avoiding the pitfalls that plagued others in the P class that led to their results. Ideally more to come, words-wise, on these two this week.
  • The DeltaWing’s 100% Road America finishing record: There was some internal joking in the media center depending what shirt you were wearing of, “Hey, let’s run every race at Road America!” One team that might be in favor of that is the DeltaWing Racing Cars squad – which unfortunately has this bizarre stat: it’s finished both its starts at Road America, and hasn’t finished any other race besides it in either 2013 or 2014. It’s a developmental project and the problem with that is, every time the car goes on track, it’s testing new components. In this week’s case, as a year ago, the car’s lightweight, low-drag concept paid dividends – it was the outright fastest car in a straight line (176 mph speed trap average, per NASportscar) and would have jumped ahead of even the DP cars had the six cautions not flown. Eighth overall and sixth in P was the result on paper, and like in 2013, it could have been even better for the Tim Keene-led squad, with drivers Andy Meyrick and Katherine Legge. The car’s unique shape (see above) also contributed to one of the weekend’s funnier moments on social media….
  • It’s about time to end The Scott Mayer Experience: A disclaimer first, sports car racing has and always will involve gentlemen drivers… so long as they are of a reasonable ability level. Sadly, Scott Mayer rarely is able to achieve even that. A driver who runs eight to nine seconds off his co-driver per lap – in this case, James Hinchcliffe, who was guest-starring in a DP for the first time in eight years, in a car that hadn’t turned a racing wheel on track since Sebring – is hazardous, a liability, and, as we saw on Lap 3, unfortunately able to impact the race. Mayer ran wide exiting Canada Corner and rather than leave enough room to the inside to allow Duncan Ende’s PC car through, Mayer appeared to come back across the road, slam Ende into the wall and take both cars out of the race. Look, racing accidents happen all the time, but part of the problem for this particular incident was that Mayer had dropped 15+ seconds behind the other P class cars in two laps – which is staggering to think about – and fell directly into the clutches of the PC leaders. Ende and Bruno Junqueira got jobbed. To his credit, Mayer actually won the GRAND-AM Rolex Series race at Road America last year by keeping his car clean and not so woefully off the pace in his stint, but it was the drive of co-driver Brendon Hartley that delivered that win for that pairing. Hartley is now a Porsche factory driver, and in my opinion that drive had a lot to do with it. Mayer’s likely the only driver in history to have ever failed Indianapolis 500 rookie orientation twice, and it’s time for IMSA to send a message and sit him down before he causes serious injury to either himself or someone else. Sorry, but it has to be said.
  • Along the driving standards note… How in the hell did the driver(s) of the No. 4 Honda Civic ST class car in Saturday’s Continental Tire SportsCar Challenge race manage to take out six cars (and could well had been more if not some evasive driving) on Lap 1 and nearly another two later in the race, and avoid a single penalty? Here’s the Lap 1 shunt in screen cap form and here’s an on-board from Jon Miller’s No. 87 Porsche Cayman that shows him taking evasive action after the Civic’s escapade, again.
  • I think they just threw another yellow: Six of them in a two-hour, 45-minute race is hard to enjoy. It made for quite a choppy day at the office.
  • And another thing to consider before 2016: The class structure announcement, where PC continues through 2016 and FIA GT3 specs come to GT Daytona that year, sounds good on paper… but then you begin to wonder about how this will be achieved from a technical point of view, especially given the angst that’s currently occurring in the P class. Right now, the PC class struggles in top-end speed against both GT classes, but can gain their time in the corners. GT3 cars, in FIA GT3-spec, can be faster than GTE spec cars; in part, this is why they were not adopted for GTD to begin with, and instead the class features spec elements like a spec rear wing, among others. We’ll see how this comes together from a technical standpoint over the next couple years; assume we’ll hear more about restrictors on this front.
  • A final thought: A cousin of mine who has worked in racing for more than a decade on the production side attended Road America as a fan this weekend and had these conclusions: “Why were there so many cautions? Why do they take so long? Why are there so many classes?” Considering he gets racing, that’s a problem. A family discussion of 12 of us should not require 30 minutes and two experts to explain how it works, and end with the other 10 offering blank stares. But that is where we sit right now. This is why, as I’ve said before, sports car racing is confusing, even if you work in it.

Next up for the TUDOR United SportsCar Championship is the PC/Lites and GTLM/GTD split races at Virginia International Raceway on August 22-24; for the P class, it’s off until Circuit of the Americas on Sept. 20.

IndyCar drivers say Thermal Club could host race after successful opening day to test

IndyCar Thermal race
Andy Abeyta/The Desert Sun / USA TODAY Sports Images
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THERMAL, Calif. – The “motorsports country club” passed the first test (figuratively and literally) with NTT IndyCar Series drivers pleased enough to proclaim The Thermal Club as race-eligible after its debut.

Though there were a few minor incidents on the 17-turn, 3.067-mile permanent road course east of Palm Springs in Southern California’s Coachella Valley, there was no significant damage for the 27 full-time cars that turned 1,119 laps Thursday.

Perhaps more importantly, drivers seemed to enjoy the ride around the track, which is unlike anything on the current circuit.

“I would love to race here,” said Chip Ganassi Racing rookie Marcus Armstrong, who posted the 10th-quickest time (1 minute, 39.9077 seconds) in the No. 11 Dallara-Honda that he will race on street and road courses after coming from the F2 Series. “I think it’s awesome. Would have to do a lot of neck training prior to the race because it’s much like a European circuit, quite demanding on the neck, towards the end of the lap anyway.

PRACTICE SPEEDS: First session l Second session l Combined

‘AN AMAZING PLACE’: IndyCar and its big plans for Thermal

“I think it’s cool. Very flowing, banked corners, banked high-speed corners. In terms of racing, it could be potentially not a lot of overtaking. You’d have to commit hard (in) maybe Turn 1. It wouldn’t be the easiest place to overtake. As a whole facility and circuit, it’s very enjoyable.”

Juncos Hollinger Racing No. 77 Chevrolet driver Callum Ilott, another F2 veteran who is entering his second year in IndyCar, was seventh fastest. Ilott said Thermal would “set a standard really of what we want to be doing with this series.

“It’s really, really high level, high tech,” said Ilott, whose rookie teammate Agustin Canapino went off course twice but incurred no major trouble. “As a circuit, yeah, it’s got a little bit different corners. I think the overtaking — we’ll find a way, we’re IndyCar — someone always sends it down the inside. I think if we can extend the straight and get some overtaking between Turn 6 and 7. It’s definitely a great circuit to drive and good fun and a bit different to the normal winter training we get in Florida. So I like the circuit.

“I think if we could, it would be good to race here once.”

Andretti Autosport’s Colton Herta, who turned the fastest lap (1:39.3721) in his No. 26, also was optimistic despite the passing challenges.

“I think it really comes down to tire deg, what people are showing with that,” Herta said. “It will be tough to pass, right? A lot of the good braking zones, you’re coming off of high-speed corners, so it will be hard to follow.

“But you never know. I would say some of the tracks we go to would be terrible for racing, and IndyCar still puts on a great show. You never know until it’s tested and proven right or wrong.”

The possibility of adding an IndyCar race at The Thermal Club has been floated, but there would be some challenges. It likely would be a made-for-TV event given it’s a private club (and filled with multimillion-dollar homes filled with vintage cars). The test is closed to the public and open only to members and VIPs.

There also are some areas that would need to be improved, namely the galvanized steel Armco barriers that ring the track and generally are considered antiquated in motorsports.

“I think the Armco might propose a little bit of an issue,” Ilott said. “Again, it depends on what angle you’re hitting them obviously. It’s a pretty straightforward process to make it a bit safer and a bit more cushiony. I’m not in charge of that stuff. I just drive and try not to hit those things.

“I think it’s a straightforward process. To be fair, everyone has had a little moment today, spun and carried on. That’s a good start. Obviously there are anomalies, these things happen. So far, so good.”

Said Herta: For sure. It probably needs a little bit of work. They’ve already done a lot for us to come here already. It seems like if they do want to have a race here, they’re willing to put the work in and money in to upgrade the facility to make it a little bit safer for us.”

Christian Lundgaard of Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing was second fastest (1:39.3767), followed by Alex Palou (1:39.3970) and Romain Grosjean (1:39.4826). Will Power was the top Chevrolet driver in fifth (1:39.5690).

Though Andretti had two of the top four times, Herta downplayed the significance other than getting reacclimated to his team.

“Just a lot of knocking the rust off,” he said. “It’s quite a long offseason without being in the car. I don’t know how much we’re really going to learn from running here. It’s really good to get the team back into it, get all the boys working again. Yeah, just get everybody back into the flow of it.

“It could be a huge shake-up when we go to St. Pete and who’s up front and who’s at the back. It is too early to tell. It’s nice just to be back in the car and get lap times down, get everybody working again.

“The track surface is very strange, very different to anything I’ve really felt in IndyCar. It’s seven first-gear corners. We don’t really have that many anywhere we go on a street course. It is quite a bit slower than our natural terrain courses. But I don’t want to be in here and dig it the whole time. It’s a fun track to drive, especially the back section. It keeps you on your toes. It doesn’t really replicate anything else that we go (race).”

The test will continue with another six-hour session Friday.