Bourdais’ whirlwind week will end with shot for Florida triple crown

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SEBRING, Fla. – Sebastien Bourdais has had one heck of a week, and one heck of a three-month period to kick off 2017.

The French driver who now lives in St. Petersburg has a chance at two separate triple crown sweeps in the same weekend with this weekend’s Mobil 1 Twelve Hours of Sebring in the No. 66 Ford GT for the Ford Chip Ganassi Racing team.

From a sports car standpoint, Bourdais partners with Joey Hand and Dirk Mueller for a shot at completing the sweep of holding the 24 Hours of Le Mans, Rolex 24 at Daytona and Mobil 1 Twelve Hours of Sebring titles simultaneously.

And from a Florida standpoint, Bourdais has the opportunity to have won Daytona, the Verizon IndyCar Series opener at St. Petersburg and Sebring within a 49-day, seven-week period – in two entirely different types of machinery.

Not bad for a guy who is still perhaps criminally underrated, will admit to you he doesn’t care much for statistics, doesn’t care what you think of him, and just wants to win.

“You know me, I don’t race for stats,” Bourdais told NBC Sports on Thursday. “But obviously you look back and anecdotically, it’s fun. All these big events mean a bit more than the others. I only get to do the big ones (for Ford) so it makes it easier! It’s a great honor to be racing the works car and have the chance to contend for wins.”

Bourdais’ week since his surprise but welcome victory at St. Petersburg in the No. 18 Sonny’s BBQ Honda for Dale Coyne Racing has brought with it a mix of local media attention in his adopted hometown and the additional IndyCar media work.

He also said it’s validated his switch to Dale Coyne Racing, even if the haters/doubters still questioned the wisdom of his moving there as KVSH Racing’s future was uncertain before it ended.

“It was pretty special for sure. You wonder if there’s a sympathy factor for not winning there before,” Bourdais laughed.

“Then there’s the flow of interviews and interest… it was pretty big. Some people were like, ‘Bourdais going to Coyne, is he crazy?’ And then some people are intrigued. And some were like, ‘He knows what he’s doing with the people there. Man, that could be good!’

“So it was all these mixed expectations of crazy, and maybe potential, or maybe overestimating the potential. We have to remember it’s still a small team. There’s mixed expectations to our win, but everyone had the same feel. It was cool to see the little one win in front of the big guys.”

Bourdais acknowledged the luck that played into his victory. But he had good weekend practice pace – he ended fifth on Friday, and that was an impressive position that could well have made him a Firestone Fast Six participant had he not had his accident on Saturday. Bourdais said his result was more that justified because of the sustained pace and great work from his pit crew, which also included his old crew chief at Newman/Haas and Coyne team veteran, Todd Phillips.

“It wasn’t completely a straight-up win, as we had to have things our way, but the pace was there all weekend,” he said. “Once we got there we had to make the pass on Simon and everything. That’s when you gauge how many people like you.

“When you win, they’re always there to congratulate you.”

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