Picturesque backdrop in LA. Photo: Tony DiZinno

Red Bull GRC: LA preview, new drivers and Friday notebook

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LOS ANGELES – Red Bull GRC Los Angeles presented by Honda is upon us this weekend, to mark the end of Red Bull Global Rallycross’ 2016 season from the Port of LA.

There’s quite a bit to get to, so we’ll package it all in this post:

Speed wins pole for first race

Scott Speed has won the pole for the first leg of the two races that make up this weekend’s season finale, driving the No. 41 Volkswagen Beetle GRC for Volkswagen Andretti Rallycross, in qualifying that was just concluded.

These six drivers made it in:

Speed then laid down a fastest time of 43.816 seconds. The rest of the top six: Joni Wiman (44.022), Brian Deegan (44.099), Tanner Foust (44.190), Sebastian Eriksson (44.321) and Patrik Sandell (44.562).

Dreyer & Reinbold Racing teammates Alex Keyes and Cabot Bigham, who turned 20 today, paced the way in GRC Lites qualifying, with Bigham among those in GRC Lites title contention.

PREVIEW: It’s Volkswagen Andretti Rallycross’ pair’s title to lose

Separate breakouts are linked here on Tanner Foust and Scott Speed, with the pair of Volkswagen Andretti Rallycross teammates separated by only 13 points (465-452) for the championship going into this weekend’s pair of races.

Still, five drivers are mathematically eligible this weekend. The pair of Chip Ganassi Rallycross Ford teammates, Steve Arpin and Brian Deegan, and Bryan Herta Rallysport’s Patrik Sandell are also alive with 399, 373 and 357 points, respectively.

It’s going to take the pair of Beetle GRCs – both of which are adorned in separate #PinkBeetle liveries this weekend – having some trouble to open it up to the rest of the pack. But it remains a possibility.

In terms of the rest of the 13-car Supercars field, the full-season pair of Honda Red Bull Olsbergs MSE drivers, Sebastian Eriksson and Joni Wiman, look to be the first to deliver the new Honda Civic Coupe its first final round win. The two drivers both finished on the podium last time out in Seattle. Austin Dyne is the last of the eight drivers entered this weekend who’s been in every race, and he’ll look to better a best finish of fifth in either of the two races.

Copy. Photo: Tony DiZinno
Higgins (DirtFish) and Whitten (WIX) among those in the Supercars field. Photo: Tony DiZinno

The five remaining drivers in Supercars have intriguing subplots heading into the weekend. Subaru Rally Team USA fields a three-car lineup for the second time in three races, now with Chris Atkinson and David Higgins installed in the two primary entries with a third car added for Japanese rally ace Toshihiro Arai.

Two youngsters making their series debut round out the field, in the form of GRC Lites graduates Mitchell DeJong and Tanner Whitten with Honda Red Bull OMSE and SH Rallycross/DRR, respectively. DeJong waltzed to the 2014 GRC Lites title having won all but two races; Whitten has been a regular winner in GRC Lites competition and this year split time with Alex Keyes in one of Dreyer & Reinbold Racing’s Lites cars.

On The Debutantes

DeJong rolls out. Photo: Tony DiZinno
DeJong rolls out. Photo: Tony DiZinno

Owing to the limited number of spaces on the grid and the deep talent pool that fills them, there haven’t been many opportunities for GRC Lites drivers to step up into Supercars. So getting two in one weekend isn’t just rare, but also matches how many have done so in the last two years combined!

Both Honda drivers, Wiman and Eriksson, debuted in 2014 and 2015, respectively. Wiman promptly won the Supercars title as a rookie even without winning a race, while Eriksson won a race and came second in points last year. Eriksson, incidentally, took over in the second then-Ford for OMSE in 2015 after DeJong had been announced first.

With the thinking it’s better late than never, and with DeJong still only 19 years old and Whitten 23, both drivers get their shot this weekend after successful tests in the last couple weeks. If both drivers can make the main event final in either or both races, it’ll have been a good first weekend for them in the Supercars division.

“I’m really excited being able to finally make my first Supercar start!” DeJong said. “This is kind of a home race for me, there’s nice weather, and I have a lot of friends and family coming out, so it’ll be a nice hometown crowd. It’ll be nice to finally race a Supercar—it’s been a long time, and I’m really looking forward to it. I’m just going to take it as a learning experience, do the best I can, not put too much pressure on myself, and see what we can do with it.”

“This is extremely special,” Whitten added. “It’s one of the moments that I’ve been looking forward to and praying about. I’ve been working for it ever since I had the opportunity to drive the Lites car back in 2012. It’s been great to have the opportunity—it’s the last event of the year and it’s been a big deal for the last couple days to get this program put together. I’m really excited for the finale in LA.”

GRC LITES: Four drivers with realistic title hopes

Five drivers have mathematical title hopes in Supercars, while in GRC Lites, the title battle is much closer.

Oliver Eriksson (Olsbergs MSE X Forces) is in search of his second straight title, and enters with a 25-point lead 378-353 over Cabot Bigham of Dreyer & Reinbold Racing. Eriksson’s teammate Miki Weckstrom and DirtFish Motorsports’ Conner Martell sit third and fourth at 349 and 327 points, respectively.

The rest of this division’s 13-car field is fairly similar, with Alex Keyes back in DRR’s No. 24 car and Colin Braun back in CORE autosport’s No. 54 car, rather than team principal Jon Bennett, who is on site this weekend but not driving. Scott Anderson continues in CORE’s No. 56 car for a second straight weekend.

K1 Karting Event Kicks Off The Weekend

Prior to the weekend kicking off in earnest, most of Red Bull GRC’s 2016 competitors gathered at K1 Speed in Gardena for a go-kart race. Despite local driver Tony Chen setting the fastest time in preliminary runs – the inside joke being that my presence has affected things – Wiman upheld the glory for Red Bull GRC’s drivers in the race itself with a dominant victory.

A few pics from the evening, via @RedBullGRC’s Twitter, are below.

The Port Of LA Event Site Itself Rocks

Panoramic view from the stands. Photo: Tony DiZinno
Panoramic view from the stands. Photo: Tony DiZinno

As a sidebar, having been at the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach more than 10 times, it’s weird being in Long Beach/Los Angeles in October since the Grand Prix runs in April. But nonetheless, it’s quickly apparent even from just the first day how much this event means to Red Bull GRC.

The views are majestic, with the backdrop of water at the Port of LA sun-drenched and without any chance of rain – a welcome deviation from a number of Red Bull GRC events this year. For those fans who will be in attendance this weekend, you can see the entirety of the 0.699-mile track from either the preferred or GA grandstands and it will look festive.

Honda Presence is Profound

Hopefully we’ll have more on this to come later this weekend, but with this race being a race featuring a presenting sponsor in Honda, there’s increased Honda signage and presence than normal. From a display tent on the way into the event site through to the Joker Lap being called the Honda Joker Lap, there’s a good amount of Honda presence.

And The Hot Lap, Courtesy of Mr. Speed

Speed's #PinkBeetle. Photo: Tony DiZinno
Speed’s #PinkBeetle. Photo: Tony DiZinno

I’ve written before about hot laps in Red Bull GRC and how they’re generally unlike anything else in racing, and so was fortunate enough to be treated to another one today with Scott Speed in the No. 41 Oberto #PinkBeetle for Volkswagen Andretti Rallycross. Not bad when you can say you’ve taken a couple laps with the reigning and still defending champion.

The track here is such where straightline speed isn’t so much a thing as cornering ability. From the launch point, where again, you get thrown back in the seat of the Beetle GRC, you’re immediately concerned with how the BFGoodrich tires will grip as you go uphill, then down the road, leaning on both right sides as you’re sliding through the first couple turns and into the left-hander.

There’s a slight kick on the throttle before going into another left-hand hairpin, of which the Honda Joker Lap is on the inside. You accelerate out, briefly, into the right-hander and then still on the pavement before another right-hand hairpin leads into the dirt, and a left-hand hairpin before the jump. All the while, you have a fantastic view of the port and water, so it’s impressive these guys don’t get distracted.

Once over the jump, it’s back to another left, hard on the power before launching back and into the front straight – straight is used loosely here because it’s all a left-hand turn – and that’s a quick lap of the circuit. Speed spent most of it between 2nd and 3rd gear – there’s not a ton of high-gear areas and laps will click off fairly quickly.

More to come tomorrow, including a note on the IndyCar presence – seemingly – that always seems to pop up around Red Bull GRC races.

INDYCAR: What Drivers Said after qualifying for the KOHLER Grand Prix

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Here’s what the Verizon IndyCar Series drivers had to say, courtesy of IndyCar Media Relations, after Saturday qualifying for the KOHLER Grand Prix (Sunday, 12:30 p.m. ET, NBCSN):

JOSEF NEWGARDEN (No. 1 Verizon Team Penske Chevrolet): “It’s nice when you have the car to do it. We had the speed on Friday, so to finish it off today is nice. It’s only goal one. Two races; one for pole, one for the race. We need to close it out. Verizon has been very good to us, and Team Chevy as well. Engine package has been phenomenal to get the most out of it. You see how well we work together with Team Penske and Team Chevy. We just have to be smart and get through the first couple laps. Save the tires, save some fuel and be smart if a caution comes out in the middle of the race. We’ll see what we have for tomorrow.”

MATHEUS LEIST (No. 4 ABC Supply AJ Foyt Racing Chevrolet): “Tough qualifying today. We’ve been struggling a little bit finding the best setup for the car. We need to concentrate for tomorrow so that we have a great car for the race. It’s a long race and you never know what can happen. We will keep working, improving and doing our best and will try to have a top 10 tomorrow.”

JAMES HINCHCLIFFE (No. 5 Arrow Electronics SPM Honda): “We’re struggling a little bit with the reds (Firestone alternate tires) – we just didn’t find the gain like everybody else did. I’m not entirely sure, honestly. Obviously, Robbie (Wickens) is doing well, so it’s a bit of a mystery for us. We went more towards his (Wickens’) setup and the balance kind of went out the window for me. It’s weird because we’ve been able to copy and paste setups all year long between the two of us and it just didn’t work here. I feel bad for the Arrow Electronics boys – obviously, the car’s capable of more. We just didn’t get it today.”

ROBERT WICKENS (No. 6 Lucas Oil SPM Honda): “Overall, it’s been a good weekend – we’ve still never been out of the top five in every session. Hopefully, me and the Lucas Oil boys can keep chipping away and come up with a slightly better car for the race tomorrow.”

SCOTT DIXON (No. 9 PNC Bank Chip Ganassi Racing Honda): 
“I just didn’t think we had great space to work in out there on the track. There were about five other guys before us and they are all trying to get their spacing right, as well. It’s nobody’s fault, it’s just there’s a tight window for everything. Maybe we should have waved off a third lap on the black (Firestone primary) tires and got ourselves better time on the reds (Firestone alternate tires). It is what it is, though, and we only really had one lap to try and get something going. Then, we had people starting to back up in front of us and never got to show our speed. I think the PNC Bank car had enough for the Firestone Fast Six, but we’ll have to show that speed tomorrow in the race.”

ED JONES (No. 10 First Data Chip Ganassi Racing Honda):
 “The guys on the First Data car made some great changes today after we struggled a little bit early on in the weekend here at Road America. That was the most confident I’ve felt with the car so far this weekend and I felt we were going in the right direction. We were capable of being in the Firestone Fast Six today, but we got held up a bit. On the upside, we have a really fast First Data car and something we can use to improve on up the grid for tomorrow.”

WILL POWER (No. 12 Verizon Team Penske Chevrolet): “That was close. We were off the whole time. I gave it everything the last lap. A surprise front row. I keep getting front rows every weekend. Not the pole, but yeah, I’m pretty happy. But only five hundredths off, come on. I think I did a really neat lap. Josef (Newgarden) did a great lap. That was all I had.”

TONY KANAAN (No. 14 ABC Supply AJ Foyt Racing Chevrolet): 
“I got traffic on my fast lap, but it would have just put us in the top 13, not enough to advance. The car is understeering all weekend. We tried something overnight that didn’t work, so it put us behind a session and we’re back to the car we had yesterday. It was the same car, so we were going to do the same lap time as yesterday when we tried the reds (Firestone alternate tires), but getting traffic didn’t help. But it wasn’t going to change a lot – maybe a few positions, which always helps, but we’ve got a little bit of work to do.”

GRAHAM RAHAL (No. 15 GEHL Honda): “We wanted to be further up and get the GEHL Honda in the top six. We’ve started in the top six every year, but there was nothing more in the car today. For maybe the first time this year, I’m confident saying that; there was nothing more. We only lacked one-tenth (of a second) over four miles from fourth (place), but that’s what Indy car racing is now. Yeah, we qualified ninth, but when you think that a tenth of a second over four-plus miles can move you five spots, it’s crazy, but that’s the reality of Indy car. We’ve just got to try to find a little more improvement for tomorrow, make the car a little more consistent for the race, and hopefully, we can go out there and attack. I think a lot of people have a lot of questions for the race. There is no warmup this year, so we’ll see how it goes.”

SEBASTIEN BOURDAIS (No. 18 Team SealMaster Honda): (About if he feels he’s in a good position to win tomorrow): “Yeah, I don’t know. I’d like to say so, but I’m not sure I believe it myself. It’s been a bit of a tough day. I thought after yesterday we thought we had everything under control, and things were looking good, and this morning we rolled out and struggled with grip and then we went into qualify and really struggled for good. I think I only did one good lap to be honest with you in Q2 on that new set of option tires. Everything was really scrappy and really difficult to put anything together. In (the Firestone Fast Six), I really didn’t get anything done properly. We tried one lap on both sets, but I’m not convinced it was the right thing to do – hindsight 20/20. Just one of those where you come out of the car and you’re not quite sure what else you should or would have done, but not super happy with the way things have gone. The guys did a really good job, but I just — yeah, I’m struggling to read anything that’s happening out there, it’s up and down, making a lot of mistakes, so don’t really feel great about it.

ZACHARY CLAMAN DE MELO (No. 19 Paysafe Honda): “It’s so competitive out there. I thought we had a really good chance at doing better in qualifying, but we ended up on the wrong end of the timing sheet. We just missed making it to the second round by a few tenths, so that’s a bit disappointing. That said, tomorrow is a long race and a lot can happen. I’m confident we can move up the field and get that good result we’ve been chasing the last few races.”

JORDAN KING (No. 20 Ed Carpenter Racing Fuzzy’s Vodka Chevrolet): “We’ve been making progress throughout the weekend, little steps at a time and qualifying was our best session yet. The car is now performing within that half-second window of the front of the field. There’s always that last hundredth of time left to get, so I’m a bit annoyed that we didn’t get it, but it was still a pretty good lap. I got as much as I could out of the car. There was just a little bit of oversteer out of Turn 12 and that’s probably the half a tenth that we needed to transfer. I would have liked to have got through to the next round, but it was still a decent effort considering how much progress we’ve made.”

SPENCER PIGOT (No. 21 Direct Supply Chevrolet): “Qualifying was definitely a solid improvement. It’s nice to have the Direct Supply car in the top 10 to start the race tomorrow. We’ve been making pretty big changes every session and we hadn’t really found anything that worked until qualifying. We were struggling with the front of the car in some places and the rear of the car in other places, we just had to try and tack it down a little bit. Obviously, it helped being on new tires and the reds (Firestone alternate tires), but the car has come alive – certainly a step in the right direction. To only be a tenth or so off the Firestone Fast Six, compared to where we were in practice, is a really good improvement. I’m happy with that, but we want to be higher up and we’ll try for that tomorrow.”

CHARLIE KIMBALL (No. 23 Tresiba Chevrolet): “That’s not the result that we’re all here for, obviously, and I think everyone here at Carlin is disappointed with that qualifying result, but at the same time I know Max (Chilton) and I both have a lot of confidence in this team and our engineering staff. We’ll look at all of the data tonight and learn from each other and try to come up with a plan for tomorrow’s race. The nice thing is that we’re still learning and we’re still constantly making progress, so it’s not like we’re out of options. We still have a lot left to try and a lot left to learn, so we’ll just keep moving forward.”

ZACH VEACH (No. 26 Relay Group 1001 Honda): “This weekend so far has been really good for us just confidence-wise. To show the speed that we have, I think we deserve to be in the top six – the car definitely does. I just made a mistake and just overdrove the reds (Firestone alternate tires) in the top 12 trying to make into the Firestone Fast Six. I calmed myself down and gathered it up, but I could only get us up to 11th. We have a great race car and I’m excited to see what we can do on race day.”

ALEXANDER ROSSI (No. 27 NAPA AUTO PARTS Honda): “We can do a lot from fourth. It’s always disappointing when you lead your two groups and miss out on the pole, but it’s so close. It’s amazing that around a four-mile track, it’s so tight. It’s just a testament to get to the championship, but huge hats off to the whole NAPA Know How team. We really struggled yesterday afternoon and made some good decisions overnight that paid off.”

RYAN HUNTER-REAY (No. 28 DHL Honda): “We didn’t test here, so we were a bit behind the 8-ball, but we made the right changes and I think we put a good effort out today. I was hoping to go one better at practice and be P2, but starting third is somewhere we can work from tomorrow in the race. It’s going to be interesting with no warmup tomorrow and trying to get the right setup on the race car, but it’s the same for everybody. We have an idea with where we are with older tires, so we’ll try and estimate where we need to be with the setup and put our best effort out there. To fight at it from third is a good thing, so we can do it from there.”

TAKUMA SATO (No. 30 Mi-Jack / Panasonic Honda): “It was definitely a good day. The entire team worked extremely well. The No. 30 boys always have, but it is great to give them back a nice position in qualifying. We were just four hundredths (of a second) off from the top six (in Round 2) and that shows how competitive the field is. I’m extremely happy to start seventh, which is the best position here so far. It’s a long race. We believe we have a strong car for the race, so I’m looking forward to having a strong result.”

ALFONSO CELIS JR. (No. 32 Juncos Racing Chevrolet): “Today we had no issues, which was important. Yesterday was for sure a setback, as we needed to run the whole day so that we could experiment with the red (alternate) Firestone tires and the softer compound. So not being able to run on the red tires yesterday really did not help our qualifying effort today. It is what it is at this point, so we will come back tomorrow and be ready to run a good race.”

MAX CHILTON (No. 59 Gallagher Chevrolet): “Even though the results might not have shown it, I think we made a lot of progress here today at Road America. We definitely closed the gap from the beginning of the weekend and I really felt like I got everything out of the No. 59 Gallagher Chevrolet that I could. With us starting where we are tomorrow, we’ll have the freedom to try a completely different strategy, and hopefully, we can come away from a track I love with a decent result.”

GABBY CHAVES (No. 88 Harding Group Chevrolet): “Yet another tough qualifying session for us as we search to find the speed we need to get. We’re going to take a look overnight, and hopefully, we can figure something out for the race. Hopefully, we set ourselves up for a fun race and get to pass a lot of cars.”

MARCO ANDRETTI (No. 98 U.S. Concrete / Curb Honda): “We’ve been slipping backward ever since Practice 1 on the time sheets and just missed it. We’re a little bit loose there. I don’t think I got the most out of Lap 1 and we’re outside looking in by three tenths (of a second), so it’s not like we were that close. Hopefully, we’re better with (tire degradation) than we were with new tires. The race is obviously a different pace, but you still want to start further up than 15th.”

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