Speed, VW start in “better position” to defend Red Bull GRC title

Photo: Volkwagen Andretti Rallycross
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As the Red Bull Global Rallycross kicks off this week at Wild Horse Pass Motorsports Park outside of Phoenix (coverage begins on Sunday, May 22, at 2 p.m. ET on NBCSN), defending Supercars champion Scott Speed feels both he and the Volkswagen Andretti Rallycross team are in a better position than 12 months ago.

And the Californian who now resides in Charlotte can say so with good reason. The team entered the 2015 Red Bull GRC campaign with only one race weekend under its belt with its new Volkswagen Beetles, which debuted in the 2014 season finale.

Now, though, the team has a whole year’s worth of data on the new cars and refined many of the early season mechanical niggling issues that put Speed into an early-season hole.

An incredible run of results followed from Detroit through the season finale in Las Vegas, when Speed posted two wins (Los Angeles doubleheader sweep) and seven podiums in eight starts, to complete an epic comeback for the title.

A better start will help Speed this year, and he’s keen to deliver early so he won’t need to rely on late-season heroics for a championship comeback (parts one and two of Speed breakout story last year here).

“We’re in a much better position now than we were last year,” Speed told NBC Sports. “Everyone’s done their development over the winter.

“The first race, the first qualifying is so exciting because you see where you stack up, and see where everyone is after doing their homework.”

Speed described his team’s improvements over the winter. The Michael Andretti-owned, Volkswagen-supported team, led by team manager John Tzouanakis along with a solid core of engineers and crew, tested in Arizona prior to the event this weekend.

“We did some testing already. The cars came back (from Europe) all straightened out, beautiful and repainted,” Speed said. “We tested the new bits to improve it and I think we’ve done just that.

“Having a long offseason break means we can develop new stuff, and try bigger things. There’s some big changes in the rear of the car. We’ve had the time for the engineers to develop things, to test first. You can’t just straight bring it to the track. I think we’ve certainly achieved some improvements.”

The Phoenix doubleheader is one of four this year, so the total of eight races from those four weekends (Phoenix, Daytona, The Base and L.A.) make up a total of two-thirds of the schedule.

Last year, Speed had a nightmare Daytona where he failed to advance out of the last chance qualifier in race one and failed to finish in race two. But in the remaining three doubleheader weekends, Speed secured a maximum six podium finishes out fo six starts, including that L.A. double race win sweep.

“They are the most important because it’s so easy to start a develop a snowball going in the wrong direction,” he explained. “If you have a mistake, failure it hurt.

“But I love the fact some are singles and some are doubles. It adds an extra aspect to the season.

“For the most part last year they treated us well. But Daytona we got caught with a problem we couldn’t fix and couldn’t start either final! We’ll be prepared; it’ll be a factor in championship.”

As for Speed’s offseason? He’s been busy testing, he did a one-off Audi TT Cup race to support his Volkswagen colleagues in Hockenheim and he did a one-off commentary bow in the FIA Formula E Championship booth filling in for Dario Franchitti at Mexico City.

“I got done with seven days testing and get to be a guest driver for Audi in Hockenheim. So I’m staying busy,” Speed said.

“The commentary was very different for me actually. It was something I’d do again in the future, but it’s a very different emotion for me. It was not anything I expected, but it was fun.

“If I don’t have to carry the commentary, and be the color commentary guy and insert tidbits of info, it was good. Being able to see how the main commentator works and what he does is a big eye opener.”

But Speed isn’t resting on his laurels having been the champion last year. The focus is firmly on the next races ahead this weekend in Phoenix.

“I haven’t thought much about it. I don’t plan too far ahead,” he said.

“The goal now is to start up with the best possible result in Phoenix.”

Lessons learned in three rounds of Extreme E pay huge dividends in the Copper X Prix for Tanner Foust

Foust Copper X Prix
McLaren Racing
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To paraphrase the Grateful Dead, what a long, unique trip it’s been for Tanner Foust in his first season with the Extreme E series as he took his early season lessons to Chile to compete in the Copper X Prix. And he’s learned his lessons well.

In February, McLaren announced they would expand their motorsports program with an Extreme E entry. They signed two talented rally drivers in Foust and Emma Gilmour – and paired them for the opening round in Neom, Saudi Arabia with just a few days of testing under their belts. Baked by the Arabian desert sun, it was trial by fire.

The duo performed well in their debut, advancing into the final round and finishing fifth. As Extreme E headed to another desert halfway across the globe for Round 4, it was a good time to catch up with Foust and ask about McLaren’s progress. The Copper X Prix was held this past weekend in one of the most extreme regions in the world: the Atacama Desert.

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“The shock going into the first race was the speed,” Foust told NBC Sports. “It was much higher than we had tested. We spent a lot of time around 100 miles per hour [in race trim] and our testing speeds were more in the 60 to 70-mile range. Then, once we sort of got around that, the car got updated so you can drive it even faster.”

In rally racing, some incidents are out of a driver’s control. Even peeking around another car can be dangerous because of potholes that have recently been gouged in the ground or large bushes that seem to sprout up between laps. A couple of rollovers brought Foust back to earth – but the pace was there and that was important.

“We had some challenges this season,” Foust said prior to the Copper X Prix. “We had a good start; made the final, which is a difficult thing to do in this series. I had two rolls in the first three events, but I have improved each time. Now we come into Round 4 in Chile in a pretty strong position. We have competitive times as a team. We are communicating really well and have our heads around this Odyssey vehicle.”

Foust’s words proved to be prophetic.

He won the Crazy Race – Extreme E’s version of a Last Chance Qualifier – and did so after passing the field. It was the same manner in which he qualified for Saudi Arabia’s finale, but this time things would be better. There were those hard-earned lessons on which to lean – and Foust had reps under his belt. He was not going to be caught off guard by any random obstacles.

Tanner Foust passed Sebastien Loeb heading to the Switch Zone in the Copper X Prix. (Photo by Sam Bagnall / LAT Images)

In the Copper X Prix finale, he pressured one of the best rally drivers in the history of the sport.

Pitching sideways through a tight left-hander late in his stint, Foust put his McLaren Extreme E Odyssey at the head of the pack in front of Sebastien Loeb as they headed to the Switch Zone. There, he would turn the car over to his co-driver Gilmour.

The Extreme E series pairs male and female drivers with both taking a turn behind the wheel.

After the driver change, Gilmour lost the lead momentarily to Loeb’s teammate Cristina Gutierrez, but as they charged toward the finish line, she surged ahead and crossed under the checkers first.

“What an improvement for the team over this year,” Foust said after the race. “We have struggled through some of the events, being in our first year in competition. We showed true pace this weekend; overtaking Sebastien Loeb was a highlight.

“Emma put in a great run in the Final. I was fortunate to go from last to first in the Crazy Race and then first in the Final but with some flag penalties, we had 20 seconds added to our time, which put us into fifth. It was a great feeling crossing the line first, I love this wide style track and the NEOM McLaren Odyssey was fantastic here.

“Hopefully we can continue that momentum into Uruguay.”

Loeb and Gutierrez were elevated to the top of the podium, but no one can take away the feeling of crossing under the checkers first.


Racing Responsibly

Since cars were first invented, racing has played a socially responsible role by improving safety. As Earth reaches a tipping point with climate change, racing needs to adapt to these new needs and requirements, which is where Extreme E’s unique strategy becomes increasingly important.

The Extreme E experience is more than simple racing. Each race is accompanied by a legacy program designed to offset damage done by climate change and to erase the footprint caused by the events.

Foust, a biology major from the University of Colorado, was given the chance to rekindle his interest and give back to the environment ahead of the Copper X Prix.

The Atacama is the oldest desert in the world at 150 million years. It is the driest place on earth and has the highest degree of ultraviolet light. And yet somehow life perseveres through underground rivers with oases dating back to Incan times. Foust participated in preparing a local habitat for the reintroduction of a critically endangered water frog to Chile’s longest river, the Loa, which snakes its way through the desert.

“I’m loving the experience,” Foust said. “I’m putting on a lot of Chapstick, a lot of sunscreen. What a fascinating part of the world. I never would have come here otherwise.

“I honestly am very honored to be a part of this sport. I am a huge believer in the fact that motorsports has done us good in the last 100 years. I think we benefit every single time we put our seatbelts on and drive down the road to the lessons learned in racing since the turn of the century. And I really hope motorsports continues that tradition.

“I think that motorsports like [Extreme E] does it in a responsible way, a gender-neutral way and a carbon-neutral way.”