DiZinno: Rossi’s divided focus could hurt, not help, dual program

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With Alexander Rossi’s confirmation as Manor Racing reserve driver for F1 – thus beginning his third separate stint with the team in the last 18 months by my colleague Luke Smith’s unofficial count – he’s in now in the midst of two separate relationships that can best be described by one of Facebook’s relationship statuses:

It’s complicated.

Rossi is an American by birth and by nationality, but has embedded himself within Europe the last seven seasons since 2009, after winning the 2008 Formula BMW Americas championship here Stateside.

As such, his ongoing flirtation with Europe has morphed into a fully fledged relationship, and his pursuit of Formula 1 has been the racing pursuit of a quest to woo the most beautiful girl in the world.

She may be a “perfect 10,” but you assume she could be high maintenance and you have no idea how long your time with her will last. And then, when someone with more money comes along (in this case, Rio Haryanto), you’re left wondering how you lost her.

Back Stateside is IndyCar – the proverbial “solid 7” girl by comparison. You don’t realize how good you could have it with her until you discover her warm and bubbly personality, her wholesome girl-next-door image, maybe not as prestigious on a worldwide stage but someone you know is committed to you, even if you’re not to her.

The problem – invariably – when you try to blend both pursuits is that you’ve divided your focus, your attention and your dreams… and by doing so, it could inevitably bite you in the rear end.

This is the precipice at which Alexander Rossi now stands.

While hailed as the first driver to be able to run simultaneous F1 and IndyCar programs in the same year, this is not necessarily a compliment, nor is it something for Rossi and Manor Racing to be proud of.

Plus, this isn’t something that’s worked well in the past. Nigel Mansell, for example, bailed on F1 for IndyCar after winning the 1992 World Championship. He stormed to victories and the IndyCar title on these shores a year later, helping to raise IndyCar’s profile on the worldwide stage and becoming the first and only driver thus far to hold both titles simultaneously.

A year later, the romantic flame burned out. Mansell got hosed at the 1994 Indianapolis 500 when Dennis Vitolo took him out during a caution flag period. Barely a month later he was in Magny-Cours, making his triumphant return to F1, filling in for David Coulthard in the second Williams Renault during that team – and series’ – most turbulent of years.

By year’s end, Mansell was back in F1 fully and had left IndyCar with a sour taste in his mouth, and IndyCar had more or less said good riddance to him.

If a split has worked, it’s because the entity committing to a split program understands the programs unto which he or she is committing.

A perfect recent example – and perhaps the most successful one – is Englishman Mike Conway.

Conway decided at the end of 2012 he didn’t like racing IndyCars on ovals, and took some heat for it, but made the brave move and stuck to it.

For two years, Conway then became IndyCar’s new Roberto Moreno or Memo Gidley – the de facto road and street course ringer “supersub” – and bagged three wins in the process for Dale Coyne Racing and Ed Carpenter Racing.

He also showcased his ability in sports cars, first in LMP2 with G-Drive Racing and then the following year in limited LMP1 starts with Toyota Gazoo Racing. Conway’s parlayed that into a full-time factory effort with Toyota in the FIA World Endurance Championship, while also keeping his open-wheel chops fresh in the FIA Formula E Championship.

Conway aside, saying you’ve committed to two things usually means you’ve really, properly committed to neither. It’s a bit like the old axiom in professional football that if you have two starting QBs – as the Chicago Bears often do – you don’t really have any. If you have that one starting QB – as the Green Bay Packers have for the better part of nearly 25 years – your chances of longterm success are better.

In Rossi’s case, the split means that while he’ll attend 11 Grands Prix, he may have that take precedence at the forefront of his mind instead of the 16 IndyCar races he’s committed to by confirming his program in the No. 98 Andretti Herta Autosport with Curb-Agajanian Honda.

An example where this could really impact the IndyCar side is just before his first Grand Prix he’s slated to attend, the Russian Grand Prix at Sochi on May 1.

The Sochi event is a week after Barber Motorsports Park and two weeks before the month of May begins at Indianapolis.

We’ve already seen the issues from a visa standpoint for Mikhail Aleshin trying to get back into the U.S. and while it’s certainly possible Rossi’s trip back-and-forth will go swimmingly, it’s not a guarantee. Ironically, it’s Aleshin – a Russian – keen to race in America while Rossi – an American – would be making his first trip back to Europe to Russia.

Crucically, Rossi would be missing out on at least one week of necessary preparation for Indianapolis – both the Grand Prix and Indianapolis 500 – to gel with his team and teammates and be like a sponge in understanding the challenge of his first month of May.

It leaves the impression he’d rather be standing in the garage and perhaps doing an FP1 outing on a track devoid of any history, instead of coming to grips with how Indianapolis gets on.

The other four non-conflicting F1 weekends during the IndyCar season are at Baku, Azerbajian, the week in between Texas and Road America in June, Austria, the week before the Iowa and Toronto weekends in July, Hungary, the week in-between Toronto and Mid-Ohio, and Belgium, the week before Boston.

It could create a nightmare logistical situation and might impact Rossi just from a pure jet lag standpoint. He’s committed to living in Indianapolis this year, but the travel does tend to wear on you.

It doesn’t really help Manor, either, frankly. Rossi can attend 11 Grands Prix but say at one of the 10 he’ll miss, either Pascal Wehrlein or Rio Haryanto falls ill and is unable to take part. Where, then, does Manor turn for a replacement driver? Would Rossi’s reserve role mean on the off chance he could get to a conflicting Grand Prix that he’d give up his IndyCar ride?

In speaking to Bryan Herta at Phoenix for the Test in the West, he spoke highly of Gabby Chaves and said while Rossi was on his radar, it was more the Andretti team that he’d been negotiating with in case his original Manor race program fell through.

“We were very aware of Alexander, yes, but Alexander had been in contact with Michael at various times the last couple years as I understand it,” Herta told NBC Sports.

“When I came to Michael, there were a few other drivers on the list, and it really, Alexander’s management had reached out to Andretti almost coincidentally right in the time frame we started talking. ‘We think the Manor thing is gonna happen but if it doesn’t, is there anything there?’ He very quickly became at the top of the list.

“Gabby is a great race car driver. No doubt about it. That’s why we worked so hard through the winter to put something together with him. I feel terrible for him we don’t have anything.

“But he’s young. He’s got a lot of talent. He showed a lot of promise in our car. It shows that when Sam needed someone for this test, when Aleshin couldn’t get his visa, Gabby was first on the list. He’d be first natural guy on every list.”

The thing about Chaves – or the litany of other drivers who’ve come to America to pursue their IndyCar dreams and yet currently don’t have a ride (Tristan Vautier, JR Hildebrand, Sage Karam, et al) – is that you knew they wanted to be in IndyCar. They came up through the Mazda Road to Indy and viewed IndyCar as a destination, not a stop gap.

Rightly or wrongly, Rossi keeping his foot in the F1 door gives off the impression he doesn’t. Which is all fine and good – he needs to do what’s best for his career – but makes his IndyCar bow seem disingenuous.

In looking through this year’s IndyCar grid, you can’t be half-assing your efforts if you expect to have success.

Speaking from experience both in my college and professional career, when you’re balancing two or more roles simultaneously, inadvertently one gets overlooked or doesn’t receive the same amount of focus and attention.

You can push through, certainly, and get done with all your tasks. But, you could feel terrible because one or the other role did not get the necessary attention, desire or effort it deserved.

In IndyCar, given the depth of field this year from spots 1-22, there are no slouches, no excuses, and no room for error.

I like Alexander Rossi personally, as I’ve known him since he last raced here full-time in 2008. I really do wish him well in both his roles and opportunities this year. And I hope he has the chance to enjoy an In ‘N Out burger not just at Long Beach, but at Phoenix too.

But I hope he embraces and understands the magnitude of what he’s gotten himself into.

And I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t disappointed that upon committing to IndyCar, he seems to already have one foot out the door.

Opinions expressed are those of the author only and do not reflect those of the entity on the whole.

A deep dive into the new GR Cup as Toyota branches into single-make sports car racing

Toyota GR Cup
Swikar Patel/Toyota Racing Development

MOORESVILLE, N.C. – Inside this former textile mill, a retro building built in 1892 with massive floor-to-ceiling windows and sturdy brick, Toyota has planted a future seed with the GR Cup.

Once a hub for making cotton dye, the first floor has been turned into a factory that churned out spec sports cars for the past year as Toyota Racing Development prepares to launch its first single-make series.

The inaugural season of the Toyota Gazoo Racing GR Cup will begin this weekend at Sonoma Raceway, the first of seven SRO-sanctioned events (each with two races) featuring a field of homologated GR86 production models that have been modified for racing with stock engines.

Under the banner of its Gazoo Racing (a high-performance brand relatively new to North America but synonymous with Dakar Rally champion Nasser Al-Attiyah), Toyota will join Mazda, Porsche, Ferrari and Lamborghini as the latest automaker to run a single-make U.S. series (with Ford recently announcing plans for its own in the near future).

It’s grassroots-level amateur racing for manufacturers that are accustomed to racing at motorsports’ highest levels, but there are many benefits through competition, driver development and marketing despite the lower profile.

“It’s not the easiest thing or cheapest thing to do,” TRD executive commercial director Jack Irving told NBC Sports. “But there’s massive value to be a part of it and have our DNA in the cars. You get to race a bunch and get a bunch of data. You get to engage directly in feedback from the people beating those cars up.”

The GR86s being raced are very similar to the street versions that retail for about $35,000 at dealerships that annually sell several thousand.

“It’s a test of the car and your design,” Irving said. “We take an engineered vehicle designed to spec for the road and then apply our resources to make it race ready. Some of those things cross over.

The first floor of Toyota Racing Development’s Mooresville facility that finished the vehicles for the new GR Cup (Swikar Patel/TRD).

“Everyone approaches it differently. It’s a marketing piece for us. It’s a development piece for drivers. We’re supporting grass roots racing. This is a very long-term deal for us. This isn’t something we’re doing two years and done. It’s got a long-term vision. There’s big value in it, and there’s a lot of responsibility with that, too.

“You’re ultimately supporting it. You’re not just selling cars into a series and hoping it goes well. You have to be involved in a very material way to make sure it goes off well and has your fingerprints and represents the brand.”

Early indications have been solid. The GR Cup cars were rolled out on iRacing in January and immediately became one of the platform’s most popular vehicles (with 212-horsepower engines, the cars handle well and are difficult to spin).

TRD’s GR86 factory floor (Swikar Patel/TRD).

TRD has sold 33 cars for GR Cup with 31 racing in Sonoma, easily surpassing initial expectations.

“Our target was to sell 20 cars in the first year, and we could have sold 50 if not for supply chain issues with some vendors,” TRD president David Wilson told NBC Sports. “We basically came up with the idea of taking the GR86 and looking at what it would take to turn that into a little race car and do it affordably and competitively, and what’s come along with that is just a tremendous interest level. It seems like a market that perhaps has been underserved right now.”

Here’s a deeper look at the Toyota Gazoo Racing GR Cup and how the manufacturer built the new series:


The race cars start as production models that are shipped directly from the factory in Japan to a port in Charleston, South Carolina. After being trucked to the Mooresville facility, they are stripped and sent to Joe Gibbs Racing to be outfitted with a roll cage.

Upon return to TRD, the transmission and stock engine is added. The body remains virtually the same as the street version with a slightly altered hood, decklid and splitter for ride height and aerodynamics.

Jack Irving (Swikar Patel/TRD)

The cars mostly are customized to help manage the heat – the stock versions aren’t designed to handle the oil that sloshes around in the high-speed left- and right-hand turns on the road and street courses of the GR Cup schedule. TRD puts about two dozen parts on the cars, using Stratasys 3-D Printers to manufacture many on site (which allows flexibility for adjusting on the fly during R&D). In addition to help with cooling, many of the tweaks focus on allowing a limited number of setup changes.

“You don’t have a lot of ability to adjust these cars,” Irving said. “It was done on purpose. The intent was you have three spring sets, and you can adjust the shocks and do air pressure. That’s it. We seal the engine and components of it. We dyno everything. Everyone is within range to create as consistent a series as we can.

“Some of that is to mimic what Mazda did. They’ve done a really good job with their series. Porsche, Ferrari and other OEMs have done it very well. We had a learning that was easier to go through their book and see the Cliffs Notes version to get where we are.”

After taking delivery, GR Cup teams are responsible for transporting the cars to each track (and can buy up to three sets of Continental tires per event). Toyota brings two parts trucks to each track


After Sonoma, the GR Cup will visit Circuit of the Americas (May 5-7), Virginia International Raceway (June 16-18), the streets of Nashville (Aug. 4-6), Road America (Aug. 25-27), Sebring International Raceway (Sept. 22-24) and Indianapolis Motor Speedway (Oct. 6-8).

Though Nashville (IndyCar’s Music City Grand Prix) and Indy (SRO’s eight-hour Intercontinental Challenge) are part of weekends with bigger headliners, the GR Cup mostly will be the second-billed series (behind SRO’s Fanatech GT World Challenge) for events that will draw a few thousand. Sonoma had a crowd of about 4,000 last year, and SRO Motorsports America president Greg Gill said its events draw a maximum of about 13,000 over three days.

“There are some iconic venues, and the SRO it’s not IMSA,” Wilson said. “It’s got a different feel to it. It’s not the show. IMSA is kind of the show. I actually think it’s a good place for us to start, because it’s a little bit under the radar relatively speaking. It’s not a venue where you see the grandstands full of fans. It’s very much racers and their families. It’s got a neat vibe to it because it’s kind of small. So for our first effort as a single-make series, it’s the right place for us.”

Toyota GR Cup
The interior of the GR86 that will be raced in the GR Cup (Swikar Patel/TRD).

Though the attendance will be much smaller, Toyota still is bringing a large hospitality and marketing activation area with two 56-foot trucks that will provide a central gathering area for the series.

Teams’ entry fees will include meals there and provide a place to connect with Toyota engineers and other officials.

“I think we have a very different way of engaging with our group of drivers, and this series is similar to that,” Irving said. “Knowing that this isn’t going to get 100K people watching, but we want to have a direct connection with the drivers and understand their feelings about car, how do we make it better and empower them to be brand ambassadors for GR.”


Toyota has positioned the GR Cup as filling a price gap between the Mazda MX-5 Cup (a spec Miata Series known for high-quality racing at very low costs) and the Porsche Carrera Cup

“If you look at the ladder of MX5 to Porsche Cup, the difference in cost is massive,” TRD general manager Tyler Gibbs told NBC Sports. “We slot in closer to Miata than Porsche. We’ll slot another car in potentially in the future above that. It’s a good place for us from a price point perspective. Our road car is slightly more expensive than a Miata, so it makes sense our performance on the car is higher than Miata.”

A GR Cup car will cost $125,000. Full-season costs will vary depending on how much teams spend on equipment and transportation with estimates from $15-35K per event. So a competitive full season probably could be accomplished in the $250,000-$300,000 range.

Toyota GR Cup

“The goal was if you can ‘Six Pack’ it like Kenny Rogers and throw it in the back of a trailer, that would be amazing for us,” said Irving, referencing a movie about being an independent racer in NASCAR. “That would make it more of what we hoped it would turn into, just being as accessible as we possibly can make it.”

Toyota has tried to bridge the gap by posting a purse of $1 million for the season. Each race pays $12,000 to win (through $5,000 for eighth) with the season champion earning $50,000.

“Our hope was if you won, the prize money would cover the cost of that weekend,” Gibbs said. “We’re not all the way there. But almost there.”

Toyota also has posted an additional $5,000 (on top of prize money) to the highest-finishing woman in every race (which dovetails with SRO’s 50 percent female-led executive team structure).

GR86 Manufacturing at GRG before the first 3 cars are picked up.
—Swikar Patel/TRD

“If you’re a female driver who wins, you could get very close to sustainable” and cover a team’s race weekend costs, Irving said.

There are four women (Mia Lovell, Toni Breidinger, Cat Lauren and Isabella Robusto) slated for the full schedule.

The 31 cars will be fielded across more than a dozen teams including Smooge Racing (which fields GT4 Supras in SRO) and Copeland Motorsports (with Tyler Gonzalez, a four-time winner in MX-5 Cup). After a test last month at the Charlotte Motor Speedway Roval, teams began taking delivery on Feb. 24.


Toyota fields Lexus in the GT categories of the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship but elected to go with the SRO Motorsports Group (“SRO” stands for Stephane Ratel Organization; Ratel is the founder and CEO) as the sanctioning body for the GR Cup.

With a heavy focus on GT racing, SRO’s marquee events are 24-hour races at the Nurburgring in Germany and Spa in Belgium. In the United States, SRO primarily is focused on GT3 sprint racing, and Gill said it’s viewed as a “gateway to IMSA” and its endurance events.

In choosing SRO, Gibbs said “the schedule was a big part of it.” GR Cup races will be held almost exclusively on Saturday and Sunday mornings in a consistency that would have been difficult with IMSA (which runs a greater volume of bigger series).

“Our people can show up Friday, race Saturday and Sunday and be on the way home Sunday afternoon,” Gibbs said. “For our customer for this car, that was important. They still have jobs and particularly the younger drivers have to go to school. The SRO really fit us. They were very interested.”

Irving also was drawn to SRO’s flexibility with digital media right and free livestreams of races that Toyota can use on its platforms.

Toyota GR Cup
The SR86 in testing at the Charlotte Motor Speedway Roval (TRD).

Said Irving: “It’s hard to get a schedule that made sense and having a break between races so an amateur can repair their cars and have a month to regroup was a big deal. The long-term vision of SRO was a big part of that. IMSA runs a lot of classes. How we fit in was difficult. Would they have done things to make it work, yeah. But they just didn’t work for the vision we were doing. This is its own thing for us.”

Gill said the SRO is focused on “customer racing” that balances individual interests against factory programs – while still putting an emphasis on the importance of manufacturers such as Toyota.

“We were very impressed with the development of sports car racing at Toyota and what they wanted to do for the brand and the very strategic way they looked at things,” Gill told NBC Sports. “We had enjoyed real success and had a lot of admiration for the programs that Honda and Mazda developed with sports car racing at the grass roots and entry level. We thought they’d done an excellent job. Toyota has taken it to another level and should be commended because it’s good for the entire industry.”


Irving said Toyota has set a goal of turning Gazoo Racing into the premier performance brand in the United States within a decade, and the GR Cup is part of that thrust.

Gazoo Racing is the baby of Toyota Motor Corp. president Akio Toyoda, who founded a separate company called “Garage Racing” while racing under a pseudonym for many years.

Toyoda, who eventually would race a Lexus LFA at Nurburgring, eventually transitioned the program into Gazoo Racing (Gazoo translates to photographs in Japanese; Toyoda often took pictures of vehicles he wanted to build and race) as he rose through the ranks of Toyota.

Toyota GR Cup

“The concept of the brand is we’re going to build cars that are fun to drive, not just for accountants,” Gibbs said.
Irving said the intent of GR is “the car is born on track and not the boardroom.” In order to be certified by Toyota for Gazoo Racing, the GR86 had to decrease its lap time by a certain percentage over its street model.

In the long-term, Irving said Toyota could work with another series to adapt the GR86 to endurance races. But in the short-term, there are plans to roll out a “dealer class,” possibly by its COTA round in May.

“That’s our version of a softball league with dealership principals who purchase cars and race against each other,” Wilson said with a laugh. “As competitive as dealers are, we’ll sell a lot of spare parts. It becomes a way to generate competition amongst our dealer body, and we’re going to have some fun with it.”

Toyota GR Cup
Toyota Racing Development’s fleet of GR86s shortly before GR Cup teams began taking delivery (Swikar Patel/TRD).