WEC draws the curtain on 2014 with Brazilian round this weekend

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The FIA World Endurance Championship brings its 2014 season to a close this weekend at Sao Paulo, with the Interlagos circuit serving as a spiritual end to the campaign. A few story lines to watch:

KRISTENSEN’S FINALE

“Mr. Le Mans,” Tom Kristensen, hangs up his helmet after this weekend in Brazil. Kristensen’s pace, professionalism and persistence over the last two decades have brought so much success and so much admiration from those around the world. Audi’s the underdog on outright pace (rare are those words ever typed) heading into the weekend, but the No. 1 Audi R18 e-tron quattro of TK, Loic Duval and Lucas di Grassi – a native Brazilian – must be considered the emotional favorite.

EMMO’S RETURN

In the same race where 47-year-old Kristensen signs off, 67-year-old Emerson Fittipaldi – the Brazilian legend and two-time F1 World Champion – makes his competitive racing return in the No. 61 AF Corse Ferrari F458 Italia. He’ll share the GTE-Am entry with his pair of quick co-drivers in Alessandro Pier Guidi and Jeff Segal, and will no doubt be the media darling of the weekend even if the car is an unlikely win contender.

LMP2 TITLE BOUT

G-Drive Racing holds an eight point lead over SMP Racing’s Sergey Zlobin in LMP2 heading into the weekend. More here on the battle from Sportscar365; G-Drive should hold the upper hand given the points scenarios, but as was witnessed last race in Bahrain, nothing’s a certainty.

WEBBER’S RETURN; PORSCHE’S MAIDEN WIN?

The stars could well align for Porsche this weekend as it seeks its first LMP1 victory with the 919 Hybrid. The car’s shown much better pace in the second half of the season and been closer to Toyota than has Audi. Both the No. 14 or the No. 20 are podium contenders. Mark Webber returns to the site of one of his most successful F1 circuits, and along with Brendon Hartley and Timo Bernhard could well be the trio that delivers the 919 its first win.

TOYOTA, ASTON MARTIN SEEK TO EXTEND STREAKS

Toyota has already clinched the driver’s World Championship with Anthony Davidson and Sebastien Buemi and is poised to capture the Manufacturer’s Championship this weekend. Meanwhile either that pairing in the No. 8 Toyota TS040 Hybrid or the sister No. 7 of Alex Wurz, Stephane Sarrazin and Mike Conway looks to deliver Toyota’s fourth straight win, which would be a first for the Japanese marque in the WEC. In GTE-Am, Aston Martin has won the last five races and six of seven this season; a six-pack is possible with either its championship-winning No. 95 Young Driver-backed “Dane Train” entry or the sister No. 98.

THE TRACK ITSELF

Resurfaced since the last time FIA WEC ran there, and with F1 having been there earlier this month, drivers and teams will be greeted with the new, smoother racing surface. How well each team adjusts to that will likely determine the pace-setters.

It should be a great weekend of racing in Brazil, with the Six Hours of Sao Paulo to run on Sunday.

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