IMSA: Street fight in Detroit brings season to halfway point

Photo courtesy of IMSA

The IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship continues its 2016 campaign with the one-hour, 40-minute Chevrolet Sports Car Classic on Belle Isle Park this weekend and more or less brings the year to the halfway point.

It’s the fifth overall round of the season, though with the GT Le Mans class off this weekend – most of its cars are in France for the Le Mans Test Day – and the GT Daytona class having not been at the prior street race in Long Beach, those classes are only at four rounds complete apiece. The Prototype and Prototype Challenge classes head into their fifth rounds, respectively.

Detroit’s usually been a stomping ground for the Corvette DPs and like Long Beach, they figure to be the favorites this time around as well. Action Express Racing got its No. 31 Whelen Engineering-backed crew of Dane Cameron and Eric Curran into victory lane for the first time last year, while the Taylor brothers prevailed in a thriller here in 2014 over the No. 5 Action Express car of Joao Barbosa and Christian Fittipaldi. The Taylors also won at Long Beach this year; the No. 90 Visit Florida Racing Corvette DP pair of Ryan Dalziel and Marc Goossens sees Dalziel in his first street race start of the year after missing Long Beach owing to a FIA World Endurance Championship conflict.

Elsewhere in class the DeltaWing’s one-race absence has opened an opportunity for Katherine Legge to substitute for John Pew at Michael Shank Racing in the team’s No. 60 Ligier JS P2 Honda alongside Ozz Negri, while Pew and some of the MSR crew are at Le Mans prepping for the test day. It’s a complex labyrinth Shank has weaved, using a combination of his crew and Kevin Doran’s crew in Detroit, and with a couple others due to go to Le Mans straight after the race on Saturday. The Mazdas, meanwhile, got a 15 kg minimum weight addition following their pace at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca, but neither figures to be a major threat on the streets this weekend. If they are, it will be a pleasant surprise.

PC on a street course is often a war of attrition and JDC/Miller Motorsports will look to double up on the streets with Stephen Simpson and Misha Goikhberg. PR1/Mathiasen Motorsports won in Monterey with Tom Kimber-Smith and Robert Alon and no doubt have the desire to win for Andrew Palmer this weekend, the young driver recovering in hospital in Connecticut from his serious injuries sustained in Lime Rock Park. Palmer was part of PR1/Mathiasen’s run to the Tequila Patron North American Endurance Cup crown in 2015.

GTD is generally a more wide-open affair, although getting through the No. 23 The Heart of Racing Porsche 911 GT3 R team remains a challenge. Mario Farnbacher and Alex Riberas dominated at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca and passing was difficult. The No. 23 team won this race last year primarily on strategy when it changed drivers. Scuderia Corsa (Christina Nielsen, Alessandro Balzan) and Turner Motorsport (Jens Klingmann, Bret Curtis) also enter on hot streaks with both having bagged successive top-fives, albeit months apart in Sebring and Monterey.

Notably absent from the weekend is the second Change Racing Lamborghini of Bill Sweedler and Townsend Bell, both doing Le Mans prep, while the remaining four Lamborghinis entered make their street race debut. Ben Keating and Jeroen Bleekemolen will look to win on Dodge’s home soil in the customer Gas Monkey Garage-supported Riley Motorsports Viper GT3-R.

With the eyes of the motorsports world fixated primarily on Indianapolis domestically, as well as Monaco and the Nürburgring on a worldwide scale in May, the focus does shift a bit back to sports cars for June.

Several IMSA drivers – Ricky and Jordan Taylor, Keating and Bleekemolen, Goossens and Dalziel, Cooper MacNeil and Leh Keen, plus Nielsen, Negri and Joerg Bergmeister – are all due to participate in Sunday’s Le Mans Test Day and as such will be making a mad dash for the airport after the race on Saturday afternoon. Joao Barbosa is unable to attend but isn’t required to; Marc Miller, a Continental Tire SportsCar Challenge competitor for CJ Wilson Racing, is running in Trans-Am this weekend and also heads from Detroit to France after the race. Additionally, Johnny Mowlem is due to participate in one of the Le Mans support races and will head over as well; he’ll be with BAR1 Motorsports this weekend and Tomy Drissi back alongside him.

IMSA has also, in the past few weeks, debuted a new website designed to improve navigation and planning to integrate the Alkamel timing & scoring into the site. A full release with more details is linked here.

Meanwhile, the entry list for this week is linked here.

Alexander Rossi ‘fits like a glove’ with his new IndyCar teammates at Arrow McLaren Racing

Alexander Rossi McLaren
Nate Ryan

PALM SPRINGS, Calif. – There are more than three dozen fresh faces on the Arrow McLaren Racing IndyCar team, but there was one that Felix Rosenqvist was particularly keen to know – Alexander Rossi.

The driver of the No. 7 Dallara-Chevrolet is the most high-profile new hire for McLaren, which has expanded to a third car to pair with the No. 6 of Rosenqvist and No. 5 of Pato O’Ward.

And there is another layer than Rossi just being the new kid. McLaren marks only his second team in NTT IndyCar Series after seven seasons at Andretti Autosport, where he began with a victory in the 2016 Indy 500 and was a championship contender for several seasons.

Rossi is a mercurial talent, and when things go wrong, the red mist quickly descends (and sometimes has led to feuds with teammates). He went winless during two of his final seasons at Andretti and was out of contention more often than not, often bringing out the prickly side of his personality.

Yet there has been no trace of the dour Rossi since joining McLaren. The pragmatic Californian is quick to remind everyone he hasn’t worked with the team yet at a track (much less been in its car), and there surely will be times he gets frustrated.

But it’s clear that Rossi, who made five Formula One starts in 2015 after several years racing in Europe, already is meshing well with an organization whose England-based parent company has deep roots in F1.

“I’ve been pleasantly surprised,” Rosenqvist said Tuesday during IndyCar’s preseason media availabilities. “I think Alex kind of has that bad-guy role a little bit in IndyCar. He’s always been that guy, which is cool. I think we need those guys, as well.

“Actually having gotten to know him, he’s been super nice, super kind. He fits like a glove in the team. I think it fills a role where Pato is kind of like the crazy guy, I’m somewhere in the middle, and Alex is the more engineering guy in the team. I think Alex has more experience, as well. He just feels like a guy who knows what he wants.

“Yeah, good addition to the team and great guy at the same time.”

There are many reasons why Rossi’s transition from Andretti to McLaren should be smoother than his abrupt move from F1 to IndyCar seven years ago. Namely, he no longer is the only newcomer to the team’s culture.

“It’s been kind of a good time to come in because everyone is finding a new role and position and kind of learning who’s who, finding everyone’s strengths and weaknesses,” he said.

But while Rossi might have questions about the team, he has none about the series. Unlike when he arrived at Andretti without any oval experience, Rossi joins McLaren with his IndyCar credentials secured as an established star with eight victories, seven poles and 28 podiums over 114 starts.

Even in his swan song with Andretti, Rossi still managed a farewell victory last July at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course that snapped a 49-race, three-year winless drought. It seems reasonable to believe he immediately could re-emerge in his 2017-19 title contender form.

“I know the series, and I know kind of everything that goes into American open-wheel racing vs. the European open-wheel racing, which is really the biggest transition,” Rossi said. “Certainly it’s the largest kind of team switch. I’ve obviously driven for different teams in the past in Europe, in sports cars, whatever, but never really in my full-time job. I’ve driven for the same organization for a very long time and have a lot of respect and fabulous memories with those people.

“So it has been a big kind of shift, trying to compare and contrast areas that I can bring kind of recommendations and experience to maybe help fill the gaps that exist at Arrow McLaren. Again, all of this is in theory, right? I don’t really know anything. We’ll have a much better idea and plan going into St. Pete (the March 5 season opener).”

He has gotten a good handle on how things work at its Indianapolis headquarters, though, and has been pleased by the leadership of new racing director Gavin Ward (who worked in F1 before a championship stint with Josef Newgarden at Team Penske). McLaren Racing CEO Zak Brown also seems omnipresent on both sides of the Atlantic, making appearances at IndyCar races seemingly as much as in the F1 paddock.

“I think what’s very cool about Arrow McLaren is we do have the resources of the McLaren F1 team,” Rossi said. “They very much are being integrated in a lot of respects. It’s not two separate entities. McLaren Racing is one organization that has its people and resources and intellect in kind of everything. It’s been pretty cool to see how that can be an advantage to us in terms of people, resources, simulations, software, kind of everything. We’ve been able to kind of rely on that and use that as a tool that maybe other teams certainly don’t have.”

That will be helpful for Rossi with the methodologies and nuances of racing a Chevrolet for the first time after seven seasons with Honda.

And of course, there will be the relationship with O’Ward, who has been McLaren’s alpha star since 2020.

Rossi was in a similar role for Andretti, which raises questions about how McLaren will handle having two stars accustomed to being the face of the team. But O’Ward said IndyCar regulations should allow each driver to maintain their own style without being forced to adapt as in other series.

“At the end of the day, as much as teammates will help in order to gather data, it doesn’t mean they’re going to specifically help you in what you need because it’s a series where you can really tailor the car to what you want,” O’Ward said. “Rather than in Formula 1, (it’s) ‘This is the car, you need to learn how to drive this certain car.’ In IndyCar, it’s very different where you can customize it to what you want it to feel like or drive like.

“From past experience, I think Alex likes a car similar to what I do. I do think we have a very strong car in certain areas, but I definitely think he’s coming from a car where that other car has been stronger than us in other racetracks. I feel like if we can just find gains where we haven’t quite had a winning car, a podium car, that’s just going to help all of us.”

Though Thursday at The Thermal Club will mark the first time the trio works together at a track, Rosenqvist said he’s hung out a lot with Rossi (both are 31 years old) and deems his new teammate “well-integrated” in the simulator.

“I think the fit has been good with him, me and Pato,” Rosenqvist said. “On a trackside perspective, it’s obviously huge to have always a third opinion on things. Every driver’s opinion is valuable in its own way.”

Said O’Ward, 23: “It’s been great. (Rossi has) been great to have around. I think he needed a fresh start. I think he’s excited to really work with all of us, create the strongest package.”

Ever the realist, though, Rossi still is tempering some of his enthusiasm.

“Again, we haven’t really done anything yet other than some meetings and some team activities together,” he said. “I have a lot of respect for what they’ve done in IndyCar and also their prior careers. I think that we all bring something a little bit different to the table, which I think is really unique in terms of not only personalities but driving styles and experience levels.

“I think we have the ingredients to really be able to develop the team and continue to push the team forward to even a better level than what they’ve shown in the past. It’s been a really positive experience. Really I have nothing at all negative to say and can’t actually wait to get to work, get on track and start working together.”