Photo courtesy of IMSA

IMSA Prototype title battle pits AXR teammates against each other

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The 2016 IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship Prototype standings couldn’t be tighter heading into Saturday’s season-ending Petit Le Mans at Road Atlanta.

Dane Cameron and Eric Curran currently lead the standings in their No. 31 Whelen/Team Fox Corvette DP, holding a razor-thin 286 to 285 point lead over teammates Joao Barbosa and Christian Fittipaldi in the No. 5 Mustang Sampling Corvette DP.

“It will certainly be business as usual – that’s the best way to put it, for sure,” Cameron said in the team’s advance release. “We can’t afford to race any differently or be conservative.

“We need to be on attack to try to win the championship. We’re going to be putting it all on the line to try to get this championship. We’re taking on our teammates – the two-time defending champions – and you can’t leave any stone unturned.

“In the big picture, it’s a great accomplishment for the whole Action Express Racing organization to have both cars first and second in the points. That’s something to be really proud of, two great seasons from our race cars.”

Whichever team accumulates more points in Saturday’s race will be the 2016 Prototype champion. And besides the one-point difference, things have been tight in other ways, as well.

In the last IMSA race for Prototypes, Sept. 17 at Circuit of the Americas in Austin, Texas, Cameron and Curran finished second, with Barbosa and Fittipaldi right behind in third.

What’s more, prior to that the Action Express pairs have recorded three consecutive one-two finishes: Cameron/Curran and Barbosa/Fittipaldi finished 1-2 at both Road America (Aug. 7) and Canadian Tire Motorsport Park (July 10), while Barbosa/Fittipaldi finished 1-2 ahead of Cameron/Curran at Watkins Glen International (July 3).

“We had a great test in Atlanta,” said Action Express Racing team manager Gary Nelson.  “There were other Corvettes that we ran against so we were able to evaluate our cars against others that we’re going to be racing this weekend.

“We ran over 700 miles per car, over the two days, and we made a lot of long runs. We really feel a lot of confidence and we’re excited about the race coming up at Road Atlanta.”

As if things weren’t interesting enough, Cameron and Curran are pulling out all stops by adding brand new Verizon IndyCar Series champion Simon Pagenaud to their team for the 10-hour endurance race.

Pagenaud raced with Cameron and Curran (and Johnny Adam) in the season-opening Rolex 24 at Daytona, with the team finishing sixth in class.

Pagenaud competed full-time in the American Le Mans Series from 2008 to 2010, earning eight wins in that period and the 2010 series title, before moving full-time to the IndyCar circuit.

In this race last year, Barbosa and Fittipaldi, along with another IndyCar driver, Sebastien Bourdais, captured the championship, while Cameron, Curran and Max Papis finished third.

Barbosa and Fittipaldi have their own ringer of sorts, Filipe Albuquerque, who was part of their team that wound up with respective fourth place finishes in each of the first two races of this season: Daytona and the Mobil 1 Twelve Hours of Sebring.

“Doing Petit Le Mans with three drivers is almost the same as doing it with two drivers at the Glen, maybe a little bit longer,” Fittipaldi said. “It’s pretty straight forward and we won’t need to make any adjustments.

“In the series you have to be prepared no matter what, and ‘be on’ all the time.  We only have 10 races and it doesn’t matter if it’s Daytona or Sebring or Road Atlanta — you just have to be on it all the time.”

Added Barbosa, “Everything in the race really comes down to preparation in the shop. Our race cars are very strong and very reliable and we can push the car all the time for the whole 10 hours.

“This is going to be the last race for this Corvette Prototype, so hopefully we’ll be able to give it a last win and retire the car in the best possible way.”

Albuquerque this season has also earned two wins in the LMP2 class of the WEC (Six Hours of Silverstone and Six Hours of Mexico), along with two other runner-up finishes (Six Hours of Nurburgring and Circuit Of The Americas).

In addition to going for their overall Prototype championship, Barbosa/Fittipaldi are also in the hunt for their third consecutive Tequila Patron North American Endurance Cup title, a four-race competition based upon overall outcomes at Daytona, Sebring, Watkins Glen and Road Atlanta.

Barbosa/Fittipaldi have earned 35 points to lead the competition, with Cameron/Curran a close third with 29 points.

“Last year, we were in a pretty good championship battle with our teammates in the No. 5 car, as well as the Wayne Taylor car,” Curran said. “It really came down to the wire last year at Petit Le Mans, on basically who finished ahead of the others was going to win the championship – and we came really close.

“We ended up third last year, but only a few points behind our teammates. It’s even closer this year. We’re one point ahead, but anything can happen. All the guys on the team have been great. Our pit stops have been spot on, the performance of the car has been phenomenal and my teammate Dane Cameron has been top-notch.

“We’re closer to the championship than a year ago and it’s an amazing feeling to be so close.  The pressure is on now.  It would be huge for us to win a championship in the top class of the IMSA series.”

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Fernando Alonso will decide this summer whether to pursue F1 again

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Fernando Alonso said he will determine by this summer if he would consider a return to Formula One next season.

After announcing Tuesday that he will return to Indianapolis Motor Speedway in May with Arrow McLaren Racing SP, Alonso said “right now the Indy 500 will take all of my concentration” but left the door open for F1 in 2021.

“In my case, probably during the summer period, I’ll make a decision on 2021 if Formula One is still appealing to me,” Alonso told IndyCar on NBC announcer Leigh Diffey in an interview (watch the video above). “The 2021 rules (in F1) are definitely a step forward, and hopefully things can be more mixed and not only three teams capable of winning races. So all this factors into play. I may consider that possibility.”

Alonso won consecutive Formula One championships in 2005-06 with Renault. He has 32 victories in an F1 career that started in 2001 and also includes stints at Ferrari and McLaren.

His last victory on the circuit was May 12, 2013 in Barcelona. He is winless in his most recent 110 starts, including the past 77 races with McLaren in 2015-18.

The Guardian recently reported that McLaren CEO Zak Brown said Alonso wouldn’t be returning to F1 with the team.

Alonso also told Diffey that returning to F1 from a two-season absence wouldn’t necessarily be linked to McLaren’s performance.

“I think they did well last year, and hopefully they make another step forward and close to the top three because they deserve it and are a fantastic team,” he said.

Though he is optimistic about more parity, Alonso said six-time champion Lewis Hamilton should be a favorite for the 2020 title based on preseason testing in which Mercedes turned heads with a new steering system.

“It seemed Mercedes is still quite competitive,” Alonso said. “They show enormous potential on the development side and on the progress from one year to next. Formula One is impossible to predict because many things happen in season.

“At the starting point, (Mercedes) are the favorites. When you have Lewis in the car and Mercedes with the potential they have, they have to be No. 1 probably.”