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.”

IndyCar: Which drivers need to start or continue comebacks in 2019?

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With the 2018 IndyCar Series season already far back in our rearview mirror, it’s not too soon to start looking ahead to the 2019 campaign, which begins on March 10 at St. Petersburg, Florida.

When you look at how 2018 ended up, several drivers either didn’t have the season they had hoped for and are looking to make big comebacks in 2019, or perhaps began comebacks in 2018 after prior difficult seasons.

Let’s take a look at who is due – or in some cases, overdue – for an even stronger season in 2019:

RYAN HUNTER-REAY: RHR isn’t overdue by any stretch, having started his “comeback” of sorts in 2018. His fourth-place season finish was his best in the series since winning the championship in 2012.

He also earned two wins – Belle Isle II and the season finale at Sonoma – his first visits to victory lane since winning twice in 2015.

Had it not been for three DNFs in the second half of the season, Hunter-Reay likely could have finished in the top 3 at season’s end.

It was good to see him come back into prominence after frustration the last two seasons (12th in 2016 and 9th in 2017).

Hunter-Reay still has several more good years in him and it would not be surprising to see him finish even higher in 2019 – and potentially once again being a championship contender.

SIMON PAGENAUD: After winning the championship in 2016 and finishing second in 2017, Pagenaud definitely had an off-season by his usual standards in 2018, finishing sixth in the IndyCar standings.

The French-born driver failed to win a race for the first time since 2015 and had just two podium finishes (also the most since 2015).

One of the most telling stats from what was a frustrating campaign is Pagenaud and the No. 22 led a total of just 31 laps across the 17-race 2018 season, the fewest laps led in a single season in his entire IndyCar career.

He also had the second-worst average per-race finish of his career (8.6), after having average finishes of 6.1 in his championship season and 5.3 in 2017.

Of course, looking at things from a glass half-full viewpoint, Pagenaud went from a winless and disappointing 11th place finish in 2015 to become champion in 2016. Could history repeat itself in 2019?

By all measures, 2018 was definitely an off season for Pagenaud. Look for him to make a significant comeback in 2019.

Or, to borrow a line Pagenaud said to teammate Josef Newgarden during their early 2018 season “autograph battle,” it’s your move, bro, for 2019.

SEBASTIEN BOURDAIS: The French driver had perhaps the best comeback season of any driver in 2018.

When former CART champ Jimmy Vasser and James “Sulli” Sullivan joined forces with Dale Coyne Racing just prior to the start of the 2018 season, Bourdais was the hand-picked driver to carry the DCR with Vasser-Sullivan banner.

Bourdais did not disappoint. He started the season with a win at St. Petersburg and enjoyed his best overall season finish – seventh – in an Indy car since capturing the fourth of four straight CART/Champ Car World Series championships in 2007.

It was also Bourdais’ best career IndyCar finish, topping his previous best season finishes of 10th in both 2014 and 2015.|

Bourdais, who turns 40 in late February, finished the season strong with two top 5 and two other top 10 finishes in four of the last five races. That’s a good harbinger of even better things to come in 2019.

GRAHAM RAHAL: It was a tough season at times for Rahal, who turns 30 in early January.

Not only did he have his worst season finish – eighth – since 2014 (19th), he failed to win even one race (also for the first time since 2014) and had just one podium finish (2nd at St. Petersburg).

As if to add insult to injury, Rahal had two of his three season DNFs in his final two races (4th lap crash at Portland and a battery issue at Sonoma).

Rahal is overdue for the kind of season he had in 2015, when he won two races, had six podiums and finished a career-best fourth in the overall standings.

While Rahal has the equipment and personnel to do better, something just didn’t click in 2018. Will things turn around in 2019?

MARCO ANDRETTI: The grandson of Mario and son of Michael Andretti continues to be a work in progress – with emphasis on the word “progress” when it came to his 2018 performance.

Although he remains winless since 2011 and hasn’t had a podium finish since 2015, Marco Andretti still showed overall improvement in 2018, including earning his first pole (Belle Isle I) since 2013.

With a fifth-place finish in the season-ending race at Sonoma, Andretti jumped from 12th in the standings to finish the season tied for eighth place with Graham Rahal, Andretti’s best overall showing since finishing fifth in 2013.

Andretti had a strong second half of the 2018 season, with a top 5 in the season finale at Sonoma, as well as three top 11 finishes in five of the last eight races.

Don’t be surprised if he closes in on a top 5 finish in 2019. Andretti Autosport continues to improve overall as a team, particularly with Alexander Rossi, Ryan Hunter-Reay and now Andretti, as well.

JAMES HINCHCLIFFE: It was a strange season for the Mayor of Hinchtown.

He failed to qualify for the Indianapolis 500, had just one win and two podium finishes, yet ended up with a 10th place overall finish in the standings, his best performance since finishing 8th in both 2012 and 2013.

The Canadian driver went on a hot streak early in the second half of the season, winning at Iowa and finishing fourth in his hometown race in Toronto.

But DNFs at Pocono and Portland, as well as three other finishes of 14th (Mid-Ohio) and 15th (Gateway and Sonoma) likely cost him a chance of potentially finishing as high as eighth.

There was also the emotional, gut-wrenching crash involving Schmidt Peterson Motorsports teammate and longtime best friend, Robert Wickens, at Pocono. While Hinchcliffe tried to put on a happy face and showed support to his fallen mate, it wouldn’t be surprising if Wickens’ injury constantly dwelled on Hinchcliffe’s mind.

With the Indianapolis 500 heartbreak, the firing of engineer Lena Gade (who lasted just five races before her ouster), the injury to Wickens, and the overall second-half season struggles, Hinchcliffe is to be commended for finishing as high as he did in the final standings given the overall circumstances he had to endure.

At the same time, it’s likely a season he wants to wipe away from his memory bank and turn a forgettable season in 2018 into what Hinchcliffe and his team hope is an unforgettable season in 2019.

TONY KANAAN: A new team, new outlook and racing for legendary A.J. Foyt offered a great deal of promise for Tony Kanaan in 2018.

Unfortunately, the Brazilian native suffered through the worst season ever in his IndyCar career, finishing 16th in the overall standings.

Prior to 2018, Kanaan had experienced just one other season outside the top 10 (11th in 2013, the same year he won the Indianapolis 500).

Admittedly, TK, who turns 44 on December 31, is the oldest full-time driver on the circuit. But it doesn’t look like he’s lost much with age.

Rather, three DNFs and a career single-season low of having led just 20 laps over 17 races took its toll on Kanaan.

He will return for 2019, driving a second season for Foyt. But things need to dramatically improve for Kanaan, who hasn’t won a race since 2014.

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