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Catching up with Alexander Rossi: On testing, the season, the future

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Looking at the 100th Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil champion Alexander Rossi’s season only in the context of “Indianapolis 500 champion Alexander Rossi” fails to properly measure what he’s done, achieved and learned in his first full-time race season back in North America since 2008.

And as Rossi heads into a busy test cycle along with a number of his Verizon IndyCar Series compatriots in the next week – he’ll test tomorrow at Pocono, Monday at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and next Thursday at Watkins Glen International – he’s more focused than ever on finishing his maiden IndyCar season strong to have better results beyond his two best ones on ovals.

“This year’s been a refreshing surprise (with the level of camaraderie),” Rossi told NBC Sports. “It’s what makes this championship fun to be part of.”

Rossi is one of only four drivers (teammate Ryan Hunter-Reay, Scott Dixon and Graham Rahal) scheduled to test in all three of those test days, and his inclusion in Monday’s Firestone tire test at IMS is very important to note.

Firestone ordinarily doesn’t bestow tire test duties on rookies, but Rossi’s participation and feedback was impressive enough from his first tire test at Watkins Glen to have merited him being included at IMS.

Sure, being the ‘500 champion doesn’t hurt – but as anyone who followed Rossi throughout the full month of May would know, he was seriously on form from the time he took his first laps.

Rossi admitted the honor at being asked back for another tire test, alongside Hunter-Reay, Dixon, Rahal, Juan Pablo Montoya and Ed Carpenter – all of whom have been in the sport since the 1990s and early-to-mid 2000s.

“It’s great. And yes, it’s something that started happening after May … I don’t think that’s coincidence,” Rossi said. “But it puts me in the car more and gives us more opportunity to work on our deficiencies, plus help on feedback. It’s been very positive and I’m very proud to be asked.”

Rossi’s test at IMS next Monday will be his first time in a car at IMS since his ‘500 race win. However it’s not the first time he’ll have been back at the Speedway, since.

The 24-year-old Californian was one of a number of IndyCar drivers who took in part of NASCAR’s Brickyard 400 weekend and as Rossi explained, it was beneficial in several ways.

“It was my first NASCAR race (on site); I hadn’t seen one before,” Rossi said. “It was cool! I would love to see another one. I was pretty entertained.

“It was great to be there with NAPA Racing. We did quite a bit. They have the local division NAPA – Balkamp – and I’ve got to know them there really well.

“The head of Balkamp (Tip Tollison, President of NAPA Balkamp) has become a friend of mine. He came to Mid-Ohio in his motorhome, and he’s been to other races even though they haven’t been on the car.

“It’s a very positive relationship. Hopefully it leads to something in the future.”

And there’s those words – “the future” – two words which seem to swirl around Rossi on an annual basis and particularly more this year given his primary IndyCar focus while also maintaining a reserve role with Manor Racing in F1.

He wouldn’t be available for any Manor F1 race appearances until after the Singapore Grand Prix on Sept. 18, a date which is the IndyCar season finale, the GoPro Grand Prix of Sonoma.

Rossi doesn’t expect to make a formal decision about 2017 until the end of this season – or at least publicize one – owing to the fact he wants to end his first IndyCar season a higher note.

“I’m sure you know from me at this point that I’m only focused on what’s on track at this point,” Rossi said. “We have Pocono next, and the question becomes how are we better and how are we going to win?

“On the whole, yes, there’s conversations that are had. It’s that time of year – and as ever, it’s an unknown.

“There’s lot of positives this year. I’ve enjoyed my time in the Verizon IndyCar Series, driving for Andretti, and I have a lot of good things to say about it. What it means about the future, I don’t know.

“With how busy the schedule is, it’s tough to make a full decision before the end. There haven’t been serious enough conversations. There could be something after Sonoma.”

The Andretti Autosport team made a bit of progress at Mid-Ohio last weekend, but a fuel probe issue hampered Rossi’s momentum after he’d climbed from 12th to eighth in the opening stint in the No. 98 Castrol Edge/Curb Honda.

In the final four races there are still boxes to be checked to end the season on a high note.

With the 14th place finish at Mid-Ohio, Rossi fell out of the top 10 in points for the first time since that Indianapolis 500 win, when he’d vaulted from 17th to sixth.

He’s now 11th on 316 points, only two points behind Charlie Kimball in 10th – yet he’s only 57 points out of third place, currently held by Helio Castroneves. It’s funny the gap for those eight spots is so small, because Will Power sits second in points, 58 behind points lead Simon Pagenaud.

Rossi also made it out of Q1 for the first time since the Angie’s List Grand Prix of Indianapolis in May, equaling his season-best start on a road course of 12th.

He’s also in search of a second win, podium or top-five – sixth at Iowa is his best result outside of the Indy win.

Given how strong he was at Indy and how well he’s adapted to ovals, he should be good at Pocono; he starred early at Texas before losing the rear tires; he’s tested at Watkins Glen and he has a small amount of experience at Sonoma.

This weekend marks only the third weekend off from a race track for Rossi since the week before the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach in April (April 10). Between IndyCar dates and two Grand Prix trips to Sochi, Russia (May 1) and Speilberg, Austria (July 3), the only weekends Rossi hasn’t been at a track since were May 8 and June 19.

“I knew it’d be busy, but I’ve had no issue with that,” he said. “I’m looking forward to the rest of it. Obviously the Pocono test, then Indy test, Glen test. It’s still pretty flat out.

“(At Texas), we learned why we had big issues early. The pace was pretty good before the rear tires fell off. I was as high as third, and Carlos (Munoz) was on pole. Package was strong. We know what we have to not have the moments we had. I don’t want to go through that again. I’m glad we made it through.”

There’s been a couple other notable moments for Rossi this year and one of the cooler parts for him occurred this weekend at Mid-Ohio, when he presented team co-owner Michael Andretti with his winning helmet from Indy.

“It was my dad (Pieter) and my idea,” he said.

“That race changed my career and life. So it was appropriate.

“Michael had called me in mid-February out of the blue. So it was good to give them the recognition.”

IMSA Prototype Season in Review

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IMSA Wire Service

It was a year of change for the IMSA Prototype Challenge Presented by Mazda. The longtime sprint series evolved in 2018 to six one-hour, 45-minute endurance races that allowed teams to run single or two-driver combinations with a required minimum-time pit stop. The result: record-high car counts in the LMP3 class with Kris Wright ultimately winning the series championship for Extreme Speed Motorsports, while Cameron Cassels took home the LMP3 Masters title. In the MPC class, meanwhile, series veteran Jon Brownson won his first championship in the final season for the class with a breakthrough win one week ago in the season finale at Road Atlanta.

This season-in-review takes a look back at the path each of the three champions took on their way to history.

1. Daytona International Speedway, January 6

LMP3: Roman De Angelis, No. 4 ANSA Motorsports Ligier JS P3
LMP3 Masters: Gary Gibson, No. 44 Ave Motorsports Ave-Riley AR2
MPC: Robert Masson, No. 11 Performance Tech Motorsports Elan DP02

How the Champions Fared
Not only was the season-opener during the Roar Before the Rolex 24 weekend the first endurance race for the IMSA Prototype Challenge Presented by Mazda, it also was the first race for the series at the iconic Daytona International Speedway. Wright, driving the No. 30 Extreme Speed Motorsports Ligier JS P3 scored his first podium of the season alongside co-driver Daniel Morad with a third-place finish behind Porsche GT3 Challenge driver and winner Roman De Angelis and co-drivers Austin McCusker and David Droux, finishing second for the upstart Forty7 Motorsports team. Masson scored the MPC win, lapping all but one car, while Brownson came home fifth.

2. Sebring International Raceway, March 16

LMP3: Leo Lamelas / Pato O’Ward, No. 7 Charles Wicht Racing Ligier JS P3
LMP3 Masters: James McGuire Jr., No. 26 K2R Motorsports Ligier JS P3
MPC: Dave House, No. 86 ONE Motorsports Elan DP02

How the Champions Fared
The round at Sebring featured a late-race restart that saw eventual 2018 Indy Lights champion and 2017 IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship Prototype Challenge champion O’Ward drive from fourth to first in the closing laps to secure the win for full-time driver Lamelas. Wright, meanwhile, finished third for the second consecutive time to start the season with a new co-driver, Michael Whelden. The No. 47 Forty7 Motorsports entry again finished second with McCusker now joined by TJ Fischer, who would go on to run the full season with the team. Coming out of Sebring, McCusker would lead Wright by four points, 64-60. Between Sebring and the next round at Barber Motorsports Park, Wright would decide to contest the full season for Extreme Speed Motorsports.

It was a special victory in the MPC class with House becoming IMSA’s oldest race winner at the age of 75. Foreshadowing a points race that what would ultimately come down to the season finale at Road Atlanta, the top five in the MPC standings are separated by two points leaving Sebring, with Brownson seventh, 12 points out, after a ninth-place finish.

3. Barber Motorsports Park, April 21

LMP3: Kris Wright / Yann Clairay, No. 30 Extreme Speed Motorsports Ligier JS P3
LMP3 Masters: Rob Hodes, No. 51 K2R Motorsports Ligier JS P3
MPC: Michal Chlumecky, No. 31 Eurosport Racing Elan DP02

How the Champions Fared
The only standalone event for the IMSA Prototype Challenge Presented by Mazda would prove to be the turning point in the LMP3 class. Leading all but one practice session on the weekend and starting the race from the pole, Wright and co-driver Clairay dominated the event, only losing the lead briefly on a cycle of green flag pit stops. Wright’s biggest competition for the championship, meanwhile, the No. 47 Forty7 Motorsports team, seemed poised to score its third consecutive runner-up finish of the season to hold onto the LMP3 points lead, but contact between Fischer and an MPC car with five minutes remaining relegated the team to a 16th-place finish. Entering the weekend down four points in the standings, Wright left Barber up six points, 95-89, over Lamelas.

Chlumecky scored his first MPC class win since 2012, while teammate Brownson, the Sebring pole winner, capped off a Eurosport Racing 1-2 finish placing second in the team’s No. 34 entry. Masson rounded out the podium with a third-place finish in the No. 11 Performance Tech Motorsports Elan DP02 to regain the class lead. Brownson left Barber eight points behind Masson, fifth in the standings.

4. Canadian Tire Motorsport Park, July 8

LMP3: Austin McCusker / TJ Fischer, No. 47 Forty7 Motorsports Norma M30
LMP3 Masters: Dean Baker, No. 4 ANSA Motorsports Ligier JS P3
MPC: Howard Jacobs / James French, No. 77 Performance Tech Motorsports Elan DP02

How the Champions Fared
The long overdue first victory for Forty7 Motorsports finally came at Canadian Tire Motorsport Park for McCusker and Fischer, but a second-place finish for Wright meant McCusker could only gain three points on the series leader, with Wright keeping the deficit at 13 points. Dean Baker would score the LMP3 Masters win, the fourth winner in four races following Gibson at Daytona, McGuire Jr. at Sebring and Hodes at Barber. Cassels finished on the LMP3 Masters podium for the first time in 2018 at Canadian Tire Motorsport Park, finishing the race seventh overall and third in LMP3 Masters.

Leading the MPC standings coming into Canadian Tire Motorsport Park, Robert Masson enlisted son and defending series champion Kyle Masson as a co-driver for the remainder of the season. The plan appeared to work with the duo crossing the line first, but upon post-race analysis of drive-time requirements, it was concluded that Kyle Masson did not record the minimum 40 minutes of drive time and the car was moved to the back of the MPC results. That penalty elevated Jacobs and French to the race win in Performance Tech’s No. 77 entry and moved Brownson, who finished second for the consecutive race, to the class championship lead. Coming out of Canadian Tire Motorsport Park, the top six in points were separated by just two points with two races remaining.

5. VIRginia International Raceway, August 18

LMP3: Kris Wright / Stephen Simpson, No. 30 Extreme Speed Motorsports Ligier JS P3
LMP3 Masters: Dean Baker, No. 4 ANSA Motorsports Ligier JS P3
MPC: Howard Jacobs / James French, No. 77 Performance Tech Motorsports Elan DP02

How the Champions Fared
Wright enlisted IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship regular Stephen Simpson as co-driver at VIR and delivered a knockout punch in the LMP3 title fight, scoring the win and opening a 23-point lead over McCusker, who finished sixth. Baker would win his second consecutive race in LMP3 Masters with a second-place finish overall alongside Zacharie Robichon. Hodes would lead the LMP3 Masters points by two points over Jim Garrett, eight points over Cassels and nine points over Joel Janco.

Robert Masson seemed poised to take the points lead and win alongside Kyle Masson as the duo drove brilliantly in the rain, building a nearly one-lap lead. A mechanical issue with 17 minutes remaining, however, set up a late-race sprint to the finish with French winning on the last lap for Jacobs.

With only one race remaining, House moved into the class lead by three points, 143-140, over Jacobs. The top seven teams were mathematically eligible for the championship and separated by a mere eight points.

6. Road Atlanta, October 12

LMP3: Austin McCusker / TJ Fischer, No. 47 Forty7 Motorsports Norma M30
LMP3 Masters: Cameron Cassels, No. 75 Performance Tech Motorsports Ligier JS P3
MPC: Jon Brownson, No. 34 Eurosport Racing Elan DP02

How the Champions Fared
The second win of the season for the No. 47 Forty7 Motorsports entry and co-driver McCusker and Fischer was not enough to take the championship away from Wright, who finished second at Road Atlanta to sweep podiums in all six races on the series schedule.

Cassels scored his first LMP3 Masters win of the season, and despite entering the weekend eight points behind in the standings, would also win the LMP3 Masters championship after each of the title contenders ran into various issues on-track.

Brownson called it an “honor” to win the final race for the MPC class. Brownson, who started in the first race for the series in 2006, scored his first win of the season in the No. 34 Eurosport Racing entry to win the final championship for the class.