Photo: PWC

PWC: Road America double features GT Sprint return, GTS and TC

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Pirelli World Challenge has a lot of options for classes and race formats in 2017 and it’s the Sprint version for its premier GT class that is the headline this weekend at Road America.

It’s been since Long Beach on April 9, when a car hit a fire hydrant and flooded the street course, that PWC’s “legacy” 50-minute format of one driver, one car and an all-out sprint has taken place. Three SprintX weekends at VIR, Lime Rock and CTMP have followed, and seen five different winners in as many races.

Memories might be fuzzy, then, of what happened before in the Sprint races but there’s now both the GT and overall championships at play. Alvaro Parente has won Rounds 1 and 3 at St. Petersburg and Long Beach, while Patrick Long won Round 2 at St. Petersburg.

This leaves the K-PAX Racing McLaren 650S GT3 driver one point clear of the Wright Motorsports Porsche 911 GT3 R driver, 70-69, heading into this weekend’s doubleheader.

With third-placed Sprint driver Alex Riberas in his No. 61 R. Ferri Motorsport Ferrari 488 GT3 not expected to attend, it leaves an opening for the rest of the drivers behind him to move forward.

The overall GT championship, including the three SprintX weekends, has the top four drivers separated by 29 points. Michael Cooper in his No. 8 Cadillac Racing Cadillac ATS-V.R leads that title overall with 145 points, with Long and Parente at 135, and Ryan Dalziel (No. 2 CRP Racing Mercedes-AMG GT3) at 118.

It’s a home race for RealTime Racing with its new Acura NSX GT3s; Ryan Eversley and Peter Kox will look to bring home the bacon for Peter Cunningham’s team in its backyard. Eversley enjoyed a dream weekend here last year with a weekend sweep.

Beyond the 15 GT cars, there’s 11 GTA and 3 GT Cup entries making for a 29-car field for those two races, set for 4:30 p.m. Saturday and 9:55 a.m. Sunday.

The GTS season hasn’t really established a rhythm with Andrew Aquilante (St. Petersburg, Phoenix Performance Ford Mustang Boss 302), Nico Jamin (VIR, ANSA Motorsports KTM X-BOW GT4), Jade Buford (CTMP, Racers Edge Motorsports SIN R1 GT4) and Rodrigo Baptista (Lime Rock, Flying Lizard Motorsports Porsche Cayman GT4 MR) having swept the first four weekends. But only Baptista is active this weekend as the other three are part-timers.

Consistency and a bevy of podiums have kept Lawson Aschenbach at the top of the GTS standings with 173 points in his No. 10 Blackdog Speed Shop Chevrolet Camaro GT4.R, as he looks for both his and the new car’s first victory of 2017. Aschenbach holds a 46-point lead over Martin Barkey of Mantella Autosport, driver of the No. 80 KTM.

There are 10 Touring Cars added to the field this weekend as the trio of TC classes did not continue on the schedule this weekend. Still, selected TC cars are running here in a non-points event to add to the GTS grid. Classic BMW driver Gino Carini of Milwaukee adds local flare, and is one of eight BMW M235iR cars in the 10-car TC field.

The breakdown of cars is 9 GTS, 14 GTSA and 10 TC cars for these two races, for a total of 33 cars. These two races are set for 5:45 p.m. Saturday and 2:45 p.m. Sunday.

The entry list is linked here.

F1 Preview – 2018 French Grand Prix

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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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