Rossi set to end America’s 2,982 day F1 driver drought

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2,982 days. That is how long it has been since an American driver last lined up on the grid to start a Formula 1 grand prix.

But on Sunday in Singapore, the drought will come to an end when Alexander Rossi makes his long-awaited grand prix debut for Manor.

Those 2,982 days (or eight years, one month and 29 days) have passed since Scott Speed started his final race for Scuderia Toro Rosso at the Nürburgring in Germany.

The 2007 European Grand Prix will be remembered as one of the most frantic race starts in F1 history. A heavy rain shower hit the Nürburgring on the first lap, turning the majority of the track into an ice rink as the drivers struggled for grip.

The rain arrived so quickly that most did not even have time to change tires, except for Marcus Winkelhock, whose only F1 start will forever be remembered for his spell in the lead of the race with backmarkers Spyker.

Speed was one of the drivers to fall foul of the weather, spinning off at the first corner on lap two. His race – and F1 career – ended in the gravel. An argument with Toro Rosso boss Franz Tost led to his sacking and replacement by 20-year-old Sebastian Vettel for the next race in Hungary. The rest, as they say, is history.

Since then, America’s relationship with F1 has hit peaks and troughs. The 2007 race at Indianapolis was the last at the Brickyard for F1, and the failure of the US F1 Team left many questioning whether the sport could ever crack the United States.

But in the past few years, so much has changed. And Rossi’s full grand prix debut is just the culmination of that all.

The return of the United States Grand Prix at the Circuit of The Americas in Austin, Texas has proven to be a huge hit, welcoming bumper crowds since debuting in 2012. The arrival of an American team next year backed by NASCAR team co-owner Gene Haas is also huge for the sport’s profile in its perennial problem market.

An American driver is arguably the biggest coup, though. And although Rossi is only confirmed for five races with Manor, it is still a big breakthrough.

It ends the drought that – despite never getting near the 22 years between Speed and Michael Andretti’s last grand prix in 1993 with McLaren – has been cause for concern. For Rossi, it also puts him firmly on Haas’ radar for the future, as he will have the experience that the team said he was lacking before.

Speaking after qualifying in Singapore on Saturday, Rossi was somewhat downbeat with his performance, but was still very excited to be on the cusp of his grand prix debut.

“I’m pretty comfortable with the car and the circuit, but my target was to qualify ahead of my new teammate, so anything short of that is disappointing,” Rossi said, having qualified 20th behind Will Stevens in the sister Manor car.

“I was quick all morning, and in my first qualifying run, but I didn’t make the most of my second run; we didn’t improve enough.

“As for tomorrow, it’s going to be a tough race but I’ve waited a long time for this moment and I’m very excited to get started.”

He has waited a very long time. It’s what drivers dream of. It is what parents make sacrifices for and what gambles are taken for.

Come Sunday night in Singapore when the lights go out and the race begins, it will all have been worth it for Alexander Rossi.

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