Coyne drivers looking to continue strong start

Photo: IndyCar
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In some ways, the triumphs of Dale Coyne Racing at the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg are not surprising. Sebastien Bourdais’ sublime skills are well-documented, and team owner Dale Coyne reunited him with Craig Hampson for the 2017 Verizon IndyCar Series season (Bourdais and Hampson won four consecutive Champ Car World Series championships between 2004 and 2007). Ed Jones, though a rookie, was a proven race winner in Europe before relocating to the United States in 2015 and won the Indy Lights championship one year later, further proving his status as a strong up-and-comer on the circuit.

However, a number of factors made it easy to overlook the Dale Coyne Racing duo. Bourdais crashed in qualifying, forcing him to start 21st and last on the grid. The last time a driver won from that far back was Scott Dixon (2014, Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course). And Jones was making his first IndyCar start. As a result, it was difficult to place lofty expectations on the British driver. Quite frankly, running all the laps and finishing the race would have qualified as a strong outing. And, while Coyne has made huge strides in recent years, they will lack the resources and funding of teams like Chip Ganassi Racing and Team Penske.

Yet, race day could not have gone much better. Early pit stops for both drivers paid off after a lap 26 caution and allowed them to start second (Bourdais) and fourth (Jones) on the ensuing restart. Two laps after the restart, Bourdais moved around Simon Pagenaud for the lead and shot off into the distance, leading most of the remainder of the race to secure a surprise victory. Jones, for his part, held his own and drove smartly and efficiently to end the day tenth. While unspectacular, it was a fine performance for a driver making his Verizon IndyCar Series debut.

Because of their results, one might assume the team will now be among the favorites at the road and street courses for the rest of the year. Bourdais, however, is quick to reign in expectations. “I know people will ask if we can win again this weekend at Long Beach. Well, we didn’t expect to win in St. Petersburg!” he quipped. “That said, for us it’s more a question of proving our potential versus getting that ultimate result. Yes, winning was a great bonus for everyone on the team, but we also want to validate everything we’re doing.”

In fact, finishing in the top five could be described as a success for Bourdais. Despite dominating the streets of Long Beach with three consecutive wins between 2005 and 2007, his best finish at Long Beach since 2011, when he returned to the IndyCar ranks, is sixth (2015). Of the six Long Beach races held in the that time frame, Bourdais has only finished in the top ten twice. His recent struggles on the 1.968-mile circuit are not lost on him, but he emphasized that his enthusiasm for the event is not dampened. “I’ve mostly always done well at Long Beach, although looking at my results there the last few years, they were not necessarily what they could have been for different reasons. It’s a circuit that I very much enjoy driving on, like any street circuit to be honest. I think it suits my driving style quite well. If we find the right balance on the car, I think things can go well for us this weekend.”

 

Ed Jones on the streets of St. Petersburg. Photo: IndyCar

Jones highlighted that St. Petersburg allowed him a chance to build a notebook, making his confidence much higher entering the second event of the year. “I know a lot more what to expect when I get to a race weekend after what I learned at St. Pete and I can’t wait to bring that experience to Long Beach, work on that and improve from there.”

Jones, like Bourdais has won at Long Beach before, doing so in the 2015 Indy Lights season, the last time Indy Lights visited the street circuit. That success, along with the general atmosphere, makes Jones enthusiastic for a return trip. “I’ve been to Long Beach once before, in 2015, and I won there in Indy Lights,” he asserted. “It was too bad that Indy Lights didn’t race there last year. Long Beach is in my top two favorite events that I’ve done, so I really can’t wait to get back there. It’s always a great atmosphere, a great circuit and racing in California is always nice.”

Practice for the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach begins tomorrow at 4:00 p.m. ET (1:00 p.m. local time).

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