De Phillippi. Photo: 'Gruppe C'/Land Motorsport

American Connor De Phillippi reaches title promised land in Europe

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For several years on the Mazda Road to Indy, Connor De Phillippi was among the star open-wheel prospects-in-waiting. The driver out of San Clemente, Calif. had the theoretical package of combining great talent, speed, marketability, partner relationships and looks in hand – similar to a Josef Newgarden, another past Team USA Scholarship recipient.

Sadly, all the theoretical ingredients and the fact De Phillippi was one of the top drivers who hadn’t won a MRTI title didn’t mean he had the budget to advance into Indy Lights once his Star Mazda career ended. And when that ended, it meant his open-wheel career did as well, so suddenly, he found himself at a crossroads.

De Phillippi had always been rated highly by American Porsche factory ace Patrick Long, the manufacturer’s lone American factory driver. A shift to sports cars would likely end the open-wheel dream but when the opportunity presents itself and you have a chance to follow that road, you take it.

De Phillippi made it to Porsche as a rare American driver selected for the prestigious Porsche Junior program – second only to Long in its history.

Some success followed in the Porsche Carrera Cup Deutschland and ultimately, the flagship of Porsche’s one-make series, Porsche Mobil 1 Supercup.

The 2013 season saw De Phillippi claim the Rookie of the Year honors in the series; the next year, in Porsche Carrera Cup Germany, he won twice and finished eighth overall. Once in Supercup, he scored a couple top-five finishes in the deep field.

For the Californian, moving to Germany required a full culture immersion. It meant getting to know Germany families, the language, the lifestyle, the food and the culture – all while also trying to learn the tracks and series he’d be competing in.

Photo: 'Gruppe C'/Land Motorsport
Photo: ‘Gruppe C’/Land Motorsport

However, once De Phillippi completed his three years as a Porsche Junior through 2015, the opportunity presented itself to switch to another manufacturer within the same VW Group – Audi – and Land Motorsport. And “CDP,” who’s 23 until Christmas Day, grabbed it with both hands.

A star drive at the Creventic 24H Series season opener, the 24 Hours of Dubai, was a breakthrough performance for De Phillippi on the world stage within FIA GT3-spec machinery, in the new Audi R8 LMS. And as he explained, that singular outing is what put the rest of his season together properly.

The result didn’t come by way of a late-race gearbox failure, but the car had built a several-lap lead prior to the retirement previously

“Obviously the news that I wouldn’t be continuing with Porsche was not really a shock,” De Phillippi told NBC Sports. “I had a tough season and I wasn’t in the position or environment to perform my best. The results weren’t there.

“Land and the Audi program was a fresh start for me. We have a really good sponsor that allows us to put together a proper program… we had the engineering… and we had the funding we needed to go testing. This is a situation I had never been in before. For me, that’s what allowed me to excel. I felt comfortable straightaway. There was no looking back.

“That race was truly the beginning of the whole GT Masters program. It was only supposed to be VLN and a few endurance races. It was a test drive to get along with Chris Mies and Marc Basseng. The Dubai performance went so well, and we didn’t expect to be as dominant as we had. That was the first kind of hint showing the potential we had, if we put a program together. We could later enter into GT Masters and the whole program was born from the result of being so strong in Dubai.”

Mies and De Phillippi. Photo: 'Gruppe C'/Land Motorsport
Mies and De Phillippi. Photo: ‘Gruppe C’/Land Motorsport

Mies and De Phillippi would share Montaplast by Land’s No. 29 Audi for the ADAC GT Masters championship. The series is a seven-weekend, 14-race championship that runs one-hour sprint races with a pit window to change drivers and tire pressures, and the level is pretty high caliber in terms of FIA GT3-spec cars and teams that compete here.

The biggest change other than the manufacturer and type of racing De Phillippi would adapt to for 2016 would be a shift back to living at home primarily in California first, then commuting to the races in Europe, rather than basing himself in Germany as he had the last few years.

With this change in mindset and being around family and friends on a more regular basis, it allowed De Phillippi to flourish.

“I’ve been living in a small town called Winterberg with a small family,” De Phillippi explained. “Most of the season I’ve been flying back and forth. It’s been why my performance has been higher. I’m in a happier place being with family and friends.

“It took a toll on me, and enjoying where you live, and seeing your family is really important. It really affects your performance. Luckily I have the time to go back to California. If I had 2-3 races in a row, I’d stay.

Having Mies, a GT3 veteran and Audi ace help his transition, didn’t hurt either. Mies helped raise both drivers’ game this year and De Phillippi was quick to extoll him.

“Finding a teammate you get on with on is a needle in a haystack,” he explained. “We had a special connection there. I’ve learned a lot from him this year, especially from the the technical side. He helped a lot with the development of it.

“Really, I’ve just listened a lot. I had to soak up as much information as I can. Also just with race craft and things like that, I’ve surprised myself a lot. From the beginning, we’ve been on the same pace level.

“Overall, when it comes to compromise in teammates, that’s the one great thing is finding a happy medium. We like the same car, driving styles so similar, you’d think it’s the same driver. It’s a unique situation to have so much more about the series. We’re a strong pair this year.”

The pairing won only once, race two at the Nürburgring, but used consistency throughout the year to win the title by nine points. De Phillippi explained that drive there.

“I would say my best drive was race two at the Nürburgring during GT Masters,” he said. “After the pit stop circulation we were in third, and I kind of drove like a mad dog! I passed for second and the lead… that was our one and only win this year.

“We were extremely consistent and always on the podium,” he added. “We haven’t had the strongest Balance of Performance… but we knew we had to extract the most out of it. We saw it, because if you look at the next closest Audi, it’s further down. We did well with what we had.”

Title clinched. Photo: 'Gruppe C'/Land Motorsport
Title clinched. Photo: ‘Gruppe C’/Land Motorsport

They added another Nürburgring victory – this time at the VLN Endurance Championship season finale – last weekend for good measure (more on this from Audi and The Drive).

De Phillippi is hopeful of continuing with a return to GT Masters and VLN with Land and Audi in 2017, with sporadic U.S. appearances in the endurance races highly likely at this stage.

For the moment though, he’s just enjoying the run of having achieved a title after four years of pursuing his dream in sports car racing.

“Racing in Germany is where I started in Europe and it’s become my home over here. As far as level of competition in a single country, Germany is the highest,” he said.

“As far as the level of this series goes, it’s overlooked – even I did at the start of the year. The level has stepped up. We saw that when a team like Zakspeed ran in the Blancpain Endurance race at Nürburgring and ran top-six, top-seven straightaway.

“To see a team can go into BES – and we all know the level of BES – and to be top-five straightaway, really shows the level and caliber we are competing against.”

F1 Preview – 2018 French Grand Prix

Photo: Getty Images
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It’s hard to believe that the French Grand Prix, the oldest grand prix event on the planet, as it dates back to June of 1906, was ever removed from the Formula 1 calendar.

Alas, not since 2008 at Magny-Cours has Formula 1 held a race on French soil. Yet, that all changes this weekend, as Formula 1 visits the Circuit Paul Ricard for its first French race in a decade.

Formula 1 teams are not strangers to Paul Ricard. It has been a popular testing facility for years, as evidenced by the below photo from 2016, featuring Sebastian Vettel and Ferrari in a wet tire test.

LE CASTELLET, FRANCE – JANUARY 26: Sebastian Vettel of Germany and Scuderia Ferrari drives during wet weather tire testing at Circuit Paul Ricard on January 26, 2016 in Le Castellet, France. (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)

However, in terms of racing, Paul Ricard has also been absent from the calendar for quite a long time – the last time Formula 1 race at Paul Ricard was in 1990. Alain Prost won for Ferrari that day.

1990: Alain Prost of France punches the air in celebration after passing the chequered flag in his Scuderia Ferrari to win the French Grand Prix at the Paul Ricard circuit in Le Beausset, France. Mandatory Credit: Pascal Rondeau/Allsport

As such, despite being a known quantity as a testing facility, how a race weekend will shake out is anybody’s guess.

And what’s more, it marks the beginning of three consecutive race weekends – The French Grand Prix, The Austrian Grand Prix, and The British Grand Prix – which F1 teams and drivers are calling “the triple header.”

Talking points ahead of the French Grand Prix are below.

A Journey Into the Unknown?

Like all new venues, or resurrected and refurbished ones in this case, the Circuit Paul Ricard represents somewhat of an unknown, as there’s no available race data to make predictions off of.

And the 3.61-mile, 15-turn track itself represents a range of challenges. It has fast corners, like Turns 1 and 2 (S de la Verrerie), a technical section between Turns 3 and 7 (Virage de l’Hotel through the Mistral Straight Start), and a 1.1-mile straightaway in the Mistral Straight, though it is separated by a chicane (Turns 8 and 9).

Mercedes team principal Toto Wolff discussed the challenge of the circuit, highlighting the lack of data to build off of as well the tough three-race stretch ahead as especially challenging, in a preview on Formula 1’s website.

“France should be an interesting race. We don’t often get to race on a track where we have little to no historical data. It makes preparing for the weekend a bit trickier than usual, but that element of the unknown also adds to the challenge. The French Grand Prix marks the first race of the triple header, which will test all F1 teams to their limits, but also offers the chance to score a lot of points over the course of three weeks – which is precisely what we’re setting out to do,” said Wolff.

That element of the unknown makes Paul Ricard one of the biggest wildcards on the 2018 F1 calendar, and a championship shake up could be in the cards as a result.

Ferrari, Mercedes Continue Their Back and Forth

MELBOURNE, AUSTRALIA – MARCH 25: Sebastian Vettel of Germany driving the (5) Scuderia Ferrari SF71H leads Lewis Hamilton of Great Britain driving the (44) Mercedes AMG Petronas F1 Team Mercedes WO9 on track during the Australian Formula One Grand Prix at Albert Park on March 25, 2018 in Melbourne, Australia. (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)

Ferrari and Mercedes have traded jabs throughout the 2018 season, with neither able to pull away from the other so far through seven races.

Sebastian Vettel enters the French Grand Prix with a one-point lead over Lewis Hamilton, and holds a slight edge in victories – three to Hamilton’s two – and comes off a thorough domination of the Canadian Grand Prix.

Vettel led every lap at the Circuit Gilles Villeneuve on his way to victory, while Valtteri Bottas had to carry the Mercedes flag in finishing second. Hamilton languished in fifth, a surprising and disappointing result given his previous success there.

The aforementioned Toto Wolff described it as a “wake up call,” though Mercedes will roll out a power unit upgrade this weekend – Ferrari and Renault, which also powers Red Bull Racing, rolled out upgrades of their own in Canada.

With four long straightaways present at Paul Ricard, power will certainly be at a premium, so such upgrades will be vital in giving Mercedes a chance to make amends after Canada’s disappointment.

Trio of French Drivers Look to Impress on Home Soil

It comes hardly as a surprise that the three French drivers – Romain Grosjean, Pierre Gasly, and Esteban Ocon – are keen to make an impression at their home race.

And all three could certainly use a boost. Gasly has only one finish inside the points (seventh in the Monaco Grand Prix) since his stellar fourth place effort in the Bahrain Grand Prix. Ocon is coming off back-to-back points finishes (sixth in Monaco, ninth in Canada), but he has only one other finish inside the points this year (tenth, in Bahrain). And Grosjean, despite showing the speed to finish in the points, is yet to score any in 2018.

As such, all three are hoping for big things in their home race this weekend.

“I want to get a good weekend, have some luck, get my first points of the season, and get a lot of support from the fans,” said Grosjean. “I think we should be in a nice place at Paul Ricard. I’m always looking forward to jumping back in the car. I just love driving an F1 car.”

Ocon, who has raced and won at Paul Ricard in the past, expects his prior experience could be a big help.

“I did race at Paul Ricard early in my career – it was actually where I had my first victory in single seaters in 2013 so I have some fantastic memories of the place,” Ocon described. “I hope we can add some more success this weekend. Having been there in the junior categories makes getting used to a new track in a Formula One car much easier. I think I will find my rhythm quite quickly.”

Gasly’s excitement level obviously matches that of his French compatriots, with the added bonus that the return coincides with his rookie F1 effort.

“For me it will be absolutely incredible that my first full season of Formula 1 coincides with the return of a French Grand Prix to the calendar for the first time in 10 years,” said Gasly. “That has to be a reason for me to be very happy and I’m really excited to be racing in my home country. I can tell it will be a special feeling going out on track and actually, I have spoken to Jean Alesi and Alain Prost about it and they both told me that it will feel really special and something that you really have to experience as a Frenchman racing in France.”

Qualifying for The French Grand Prix begins at 9:55 a.m. ET on Saturday, with Sunday’s race at 9:30 a.m. ET.

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