With 4 in top 8, Honda off to better start at St. Pete than last year

(Getty Images)

The 2016 season has started off significantly better for Honda compared to how 2015 began.

In last year’s season-opening Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg, Hondas struggled to find speed and power, with the highest-finishing driver being seventh-place Ryan Hunter Reay.

In addition, Honda had just two other drivers behind Hunter-Reay in the top 10 and nine more from 11th through the rear of the 24-car field.

This past Sunday, though, things had a much more successful air. Hunter-Reay was again the top finishing Honda driver, earning a third-place podium finish.

“Passing a Penske car here for the podium is an accomplishment,” Hunter-Reay said. “They run so well here, every year. I used everything I had to get by [Helio] Castroneves. I used up my rear tires catching him but I think he used his up even more by trying to stay ahead of me.”

Overall, Honda placed four drivers in the top eight finishers, with Mikhail Aleshin (fifth), Takuma Sato (sixth) and Carlos Munoz (eighth).

Hondas also took six places in a row, from 11th through 16th, as well as 19th and 20th in the 22-car field.

“We believe we’ve made significant improvements in both our engine and aero packages this year, and today’s results reflect that,” said Art St. Cyr, President of Honda Performance Development. “Given Team Penske’s historic dominance at St. Petersburg, Ryan Hunter-Reay’s third-place run was an encouraging start to the season.”

One significant note was rookie Conor Daly paced the field for 15 laps mid-race before contact with a curb dropped him to a 13th-place finish.

“It was really nice to lead the race, and fight at the front with the Penske drivers,” Daly said. “I thought we were headed for a great finish. After our last pit stop, I braked late to try to pass [James] Hinchcliffe, but then [Carlos] Munoz came flying up the inside and I had to ride up over the curbs.

“That damaged the front wing, so I had to make an extra stop. But I can’t complain. You always want more, but running competitively like this was a great start to the season.”

Admittedly, there was some disappointment, as the cars of James Hinchcliffe, Takuma Sato and Graham Rahal were all collected in contact from other drivers.

Sato and Hinchcliffe were involved in an opening lap wreck. Both were able to recover, and while Sato was able to rally to a sixth-place finish, Hinchcliffe was involved in another wreck on Lap 57 (that also involved Rahal) that ended his hopes for a top-10 showing.

To view highlights from both the IndyCar race as well as the Acura Motorsports’ Pirelli World Challenge at St. Petersburg, check out this YouTube video from Honda Racing: HPD Trackside.

The next stop on the Verizon IndyCar Series schedule is a Saturday night race under the lights at Phoenix International Raceway on April 2. It will be the first oval race of the season and will be televised on NBCSN at 8 p.m. ET.

Follow @JerryBonkowski

Cadillac confirms WEC driver lineup with Chip Ganassi Racing that will race Le Mans in 2023

Cadillac Ganassi Le Mans
Cadillac Racing

Cadillac and Chip Ganassi Racing announced their driver lineup for a 2023 entry in the FIA World Endurance Championship, the sports car series that includes the 24 Hours of Le Mans.

The Cadillac V-LMDh entry will be driven by Earl Bamber and Alex Lynn, who were teamed on the No. 02 Cadillac that competed in the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship DPi class this season and won the Twelve Hours of Sebring. The third driver will be Richard Westbrook, who will return to Ganassi after helping the team to a GT class win at Le Mans in 2018.

The team also will compete in the Rolex 24 at Daytona in the rebranded Grand Touring Prototype premier category, which is designed for crossover between the top prototypes in IMSA and WEC. Ganassi will field a second entry at Daytona with its No. 01 Cadillac that will compete full time in IMSA with Sebastien Bourdais and Renger van der Zande.

A Ganassi spokesman said the team hopes to run its second entry in the 2023 24 Hours of Le Mans but only its WEC team is confirmed (an AOC invitation would be required for the IMSA team). The team also is exploring options but currently plans to have the WEC’s team base of operations in Indianapolis.

Ganassi is the first American-based prototype team to confirm its entry in the 2023 24 Hours of Le Mans. It’s expected that Team Penske, which raced this year’s Le Mans with a full-time WEC entry in LMP2, also will race Le Mans with Porsche’s new LMDh car that is set for IMSA, but the manufacturer has yet to confirm its driver and team lineup.

Next year will mark the return of Cadillac to Le Mans for the first time since 2002.

Before joining Ganassi last year, Lynn made 28 WEC starts since 2016, winning the LMGTE Pro class at Le Mans in 2020.

“I’m absolutely thrilled to continue with Cadillac and Chip Ganassi Racing,” Lynn said in a release. “It’s a huge honor to drive for Chip in any capacity but certainly on a full factory sports car program, it’s seriously cool. Cadillac has so much heritage as a luxury North American sports car brand, so to be able to represent them is a huge privilege. I’ve had a lot of fun in my first year doing it and to continue that onto the World Endurance Championship stage is fantastic.

“For me, returning to WEC is sort of what I’ve always known and it’s a bit like going into my wheelhouse. This year in IMSA was a bit different with getting to know all-new circuits and a new style of racing so 2023 will be filled with a bit more of what I’m used to with more of a European focus. I think what’s significant about WEC is without a doubt Le Mans. As a sports car race, Le Mans is the crown jewel and everything that we want to win. To be able to take Chip Ganassi Racing and Cadillac back to Le Mans to fight for overall honors is a huge honor and that’s something that I’m going to work tirelessly to make sure we achieve.”

Bamber won the Le Mans overall in 2015 and ’17 with Porsche teams and also was a 2019 GTLM champion in IMSA.

“I am really happy to continue at Chip Ganassi Racing and Cadillac,” Bamber said in a release. “I’ve loved my first season in DPi and now to continue over into the LMDh era and WEC is super exciting. Looking forward to fighting for a world championship and another Le Mans victory.

“The World Endurance Championships gives us the opportunity to race at the world’s biggest race, which is Le Mans, the crown jewel of sports car racing. I’ve been lucky enough to win it before and it’s obviously a huge goal for Cadillac and everyone at Chip Ganassi Racing. To have that goal in sight is really exciting. It’s been great to have Alex as a teammate in 2022. We’ve been able to learn and grow together in the DPi, and we have a really good partnership going into WEC. We know each other really well and believe adding Richard will be a seamless transition.”

Said Westbrook: “After four really good years at Chip Ganassi Racing, I’ve got so many friends there and I’ve always dreamt to come back one day. It just worked so well between 2016 and 2019, and I’m delighted we found a route to come together again. I can’t wait, it’s an exciting era in sports car racing right now.

“I feel like I know Alex and Earl really well. I did Le Mans with Alex in 2020 and I’ve known him for years. It feels like I’m going back with an ex-teammate and exactly the same with Earl. Although I’ve never shared a car with Earl, we’ve always done the same sort of racing be it in WEC or in IMSA. We’ve had lots of battles, including this year in our dueling Cadillacs. We’ve always gotten along quite well, and I can say we’re going to have a great year together.”

The seven-race WEC season, which also includes a stop at Spa, will begin March 17 with the 1,000 Miles of Sebring at Sebring International Raceway in Florida.