Off season? What off season? 2017’s racing year starts next week

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The motorsport off-season is an ever-shrinking phenomenon.

While we’ve all enjoyed our fill of food and drink over the holiday period and enjoyed the other festivities that come with this time of year, those involved in racing will have been conscious that the new season is just around the corner.

And by ‘just around the corner’, I actually mean ‘next week’.

It doesn’t really feel like we’ve had much of a break from racing. The Formula 1 season came to a close in Abu Dhabi at the end of November, with the two weeks that followed then being consumed by the fallout from Nico Rosberg’s shock retirement.

Mercedes was then good enough to confirm that there would be no announcement until the new year, giving the media some respite over the holidays by removing the worry of Valtteri Bottas being named as Rosberg’s replacement while we were tucking into turkey.

But news has still been filing through in the meantime. Ferrari is already planning for 2017 by signing Antonio Giovinazzi as a third driver and confirming a date for its new car launch. Pirelli also got in on the act by confirming its tire picks for Australia and China.

Throw in announcements for the Rolex 24 at Daytona, more drivers signing up for the Race of Champions and even an IndyCar baby arriving, and you can see that December has still been a busy month for racing despite there being nothing of note on-track.

And so with January comes the start of another racing campaign, starting on January 2 with the fearsome Dakar Rally. Taking place in South America over a 12-day period, this battle of endurance will kickstart 2017 in motorsport.

Speaking of endurance, next weekend also marks the start of the American racing season with the Roar Before the Rolex 24 at Daytona International Speedway. The traditional three-day test ahead of the Rolex 24 will allow the field to dial in ahead of the twice-around-the-clock classic at the end of January.

Formula E also breaks from its winter slumber next weekend with the inaugural Vegas eRace, a unique event that will see the 20 regular drivers from the series go up against 10 of the world’s best sim racers for a prize pool totaling $1 million.

Besides the Rolex 24, the end of January will also see the Race of Champions take place in Miami, with drivers from a variety of disciplines going up against each other in a number of challenges for both individual and national honors.

Last year saw Sebastian Vettel take the drivers’ title in London, while Team GB was victorious in the team event. However, with a strong American presence from IndyCar, NASCAR and even rallycross in Miami, expect to see the star-spangled banner somewhere on the podium, if not the top step.

The European racing season may not truly burst into life until April, given the chilly climate, but the first major event takes place on the January 21-22 weekend with Rally Monte-Carlo, the curtain-raiser for the FIA World Rally Championship.

Following Volkswagen’s shock exit from the series, World Champion Sebastien Ogier has jumped ship to Ford’s M-Sport team. With new regulations and a number of rising stars in the series, the Frenchman will have a serious fight on his hands in his bid for a fifth title in 2017.

So as you can see, the off-season isn’t really ‘off’ at all. There’s always something going on – but would we have it any other way?

Cadillac, Acura battle for top speed as cars back on track for Rolex 24 at Daytona practice

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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – The new hybrid prototypes of Cadillac and Acura battled atop the speed chart as practice resumed Thursday for the Rolex 24 at Daytona.

Chip Ganassi Racing driver Richard Westbrook was fastest Thursday afternoon in the No. 02 Cadillac V-LMDh with a 1-minute, 35.185-second lap around the 12-turn, 3.56-mile road course at Daytona International Speedway.

That pace topped Ricky Taylor’s 1:35.366 lap that topped the Thursday morning session that marked the first time the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship was back on track since qualifying Sunday afternoon that concluded the four-day Roar Before The Rolex 24 test.

In a final session Thursday night, Matt Campbell was fastest (1:35.802) in the No. 7 Porsche Penske Motorsports Porsche 963 but still was off the times set by Westbrook and Taylor.

Punctuated by Tom Blomqvist’s pole position for defending race winner Meyer Shank Racing, the Acura ARX-06s had been fastest for much of the Roar and led four consecutive practice sessions.

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But the times have been extremely tight in the new Grand Touring Prototype (GTP) category that has brought hybrid engines to IMSA’s premier class. Only 0.9 seconds separated the nine LMDh cars in GTP in qualifying, and though the spread slightly widened to 1.378 seconds in Thursday’s practices with teams on varying strategies and preparation, Westbrook still pooh-poohed the importance of speeds.

“It’s always nice to be at the top, but I don’t think it means too much or read too much into it” Westbrook said. “Big fuel tanks in the GTP class this year, so you have no idea what fuel levels people are running. We had a good run, and the car is really enjoyable to drive now. I definitely wasn’t saying that a month ago.

“It really does feel good now. We are working on performance and definitely unlocking some potential, and it just gives us more confidence going into the race. It’s going to be super tight. Everyone’s got the same power, everyone has the same downforce, everyone has the same drag levels and let’s just go race.”

Because teams have put such a premium on reliability, handling mostly has suffered in the GTPs, but Westbrook said the tide had turned Thursday.

“These cars are so competitive, and you were just running it for the sake of running it in the beginning, and there’s so much going on, you don’t really have time to work on performance,” he said. “A lot of emphasis was on durability in the beginning, and rightly so, but now finally we can work on performance, and that’s the same for other manufacturers as well. But we’re worrying about ourselves and improving every run, and I think everybody’s pretty happy with their Cadillac right now.”

Mike Shank, co-owner of Blomqvist’s No. 60 on the pole, said his team still was facing reliability problems despite its speed.

“We address them literally every hour,” Shank said. “We’re addressing some little thing we’re doing better to try to make it last. And also we’re talking about how we race the race, which will be different from years past.

“Just think about every system in the car, I’m not going to say which ones we’re working on, but there are systems in the car that ORECA and HPD are continually trying to improve. By the way, sometimes we put them on the car and take them off before it even goes out on the track because something didn’t work with electronics. There’s so much programming. So many departments have to talk to each other. That bridge gets broken from a code not being totally correct, and the car won’t run. Or the power steering turns off.”

Former Rolex 24 winner Renger van der Zande of Ganassi said it still is a waiting game until the 24-hour race begins Saturday shortly after 1:30 p.m.

“I think the performance of the car is good,” van der Zande said. “No drama. We’re chipping away on setup step by step and the team is in control. It’s crazy out there what people do on the track at the moment. It’s about staying cool and peak at the right moment, and it’s not the right moment yet for that. We’ll keep digging.”


PRACTICE RESULTS:

Click here for Session I (by class)

Click here for Session II (by class)

Click here for Session III (by class)

Combined speeds