Photo courtesy of IMSA

IMSA: Two weeks of madness complete at The Glen, CTMP

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The IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship has completed its lone back-to-back stretch of the 2017 season, as it restarts from the post-Le Mans break from the start of June to the start of July. A few thoughts to follow from the action thus far:

CADILLAC NOT YET DEFEATED, BUT COMPETITION IS CLOSE

That Action Express Racing with both its No. 5 Mustang Sampling Racing and No. 31 Whelen Engineering Racing entries kept the thus far perfect run of victories for the Cadillac DPi-V.R alive – now seven-for-seven overall with just three Prototype races to play – spoke more to overall team fortitude and determination rather than outright pace with each lineup breaking through at Watkins Glen International and Canadian Tire Motorsport Park, respectively.

The competition was proven to be closer here than it was in the opening rounds of the season, with the reasoning the other cars have found more in the way of in-season development and, crucially, the Balance of Performance has not been in Cadillac’s favor. Yet Cadillac has continued to win in spite of the challenges they’ve faced throughout the season, which speaks to their team efforts.

The No. 5 crew broke through at the Glen. Photo courtesy of IMSA

At the Glen, with the otherwise dominant No. 10 Konica Minolta Cadillac resigned to a spectating role playing catch-up with first lap suspension damage costing them laps, and the No. 31 Cadillac later sent to the rear of the field for a drive-time violation for third driver Filipe Albuquerque, the No. 5 Cadillac picked up the slack with Joao Barbosa’s slightly more experienced hand winning out in traffic over the equally determined, but defeated, Stephen Simpson in the No. 85 JDC-Miller Motorsports Oreca 07 Gibson “banana boat.”

The champs finally were back on top Sunday. Photo courtesy of IMSA

Late rain and final pit stops at CTMP brought the No. 85 car behind the No. 31 Cadillac of Dane Cameron and Eric Curran, and the defending championship winning team held on despite a car with a pace disadvantage. Yes, like at the Glen, the No. 10 Cadillac was out of contention – Jordan Taylor sustained an unfortunate collision with his Corvette Racing teammate Tommy Milner in the No. 4 Corvette C7.R – but it shouldn’t detract from this team finally breaking through after a tough season defending its title.

The No. 85 car has been the closest to beating the Cadillacs, for sure, but successive podiums from the No. 55 Mazda RT24-P and No. 2 Tequila Patron ESM Nissan Onroak DPi have seen the other two DPi manufacturers on the podium, and in the right pair of hands, the No. 52 PR1/Mathiasen Motorsports Ligier JS P217 Gibson looks a decent bet too.

ESM was unlucky at Watkins Glen with a car that was clearly fast, but hit hard with penalties before retiring. It’s been a whirlwind couple weeks for that team with Ed Brown’s retirement from prototype racing before being sidelined due to back surgery, then Pipo Derani winning the pole one week in the No. 2 car before getting shifted to the No. 22 car the next week.

The scoreboard reads 7-0 Cadillacs in favor of everyone else but the “why” they’re on top reveals a much closer level of competition than merely the stats would indicate.

JDC-MILLER’S “BANANA BOAT” ROCKING THE BOAT OF PLANNED FORM

The No. 85 JDC-Miller Motorsports Oreca 07 Gibson has been pleasant surprise of the year in IMSA. Photo courtesy of IMSA

The fact a lineup of one full pro (Simpson) and two burgeoning ones (Misha Goikhberg and Chris Miller) has almost been able to almost topple two title-winning lineups – in its first year in the top class, with an entirely new car, mind you – spoke volumes of the John Church-led team’s preparation. Those who have seen JDC’s title-winning success in the junior open-wheel ranks shouldn’t be surprised, and it’s been the best pleasant surprise of the IMSA season.

At the Glen, Simpson’s pass for the lead on Barbosa with just over 20 minutes remaining was as breathtaking as it was bold, before Barbosa got him back later. The Barbosa/Christian Fittipaldi full-season pairing finally broke through with Albuquerque able to enjoy the spoils of his first U.S. win this year, a needed result for him after his Daytona disappointment.

Simpson also looked the business at CTMP, but it was Goikhberg’s weekend performance that stood out. Qualifying second in this deep a field spoke a bit to the car’s inherent strength for this circuit, but would not have been delivered if Goikhberg didn’t have the confidence to deliver the lap. He ran well over an hour in the race too, and handed the car off to Simpson well with a shot to win.

Seeing the past IMSA Prototype Challenge (formerly Lites) champion blossom into a solid number two driver at this level has been a minor revelation because he’s not as highly rated as some of the others in this category, but JDC-Miller’s success would not have happened without his growth.

DON’T FORGET THE PERFORMANCE TECH PERFECTION STILL ROLLING

Young guns O’Ward, French and Masson have kept Performance Tech Motorsports’ dream season alive. Photo courtesy of IMSA

The class is a shadow of its former self in its final season, but the Prototype Challenge class has still seen Brent O’Neill’s Performance Tech Motorsports team performing at its highest level yet in seven seasons in this series. At CTMP, despite losing time in the pits for repairs after hitting a tire, the crew executed the repairs to ensure Pato O’Ward made that time up and still brought home a victory, the sixth in a row for O’Ward and James French in the team’s No. 38 Oreca FLM09 (with Kyle Masson part of the winning lineup at the Glen).

O’Neill is in a tough spot as he plans for the team’s next step. The performance shown this year – French has five poles from six races and the team has won all six races with only two races remaining in the class’ history (Road America and Road Atlanta) – has showcased what the team can do. But it’s going to require a significant financial uptick in budget – north of $2 million for a season in 2018, so perhaps double the current PC budget – for a move to an LMP2-spec chassis as the PC cars become obsolete.

It’s easy to overlook the “little guys” of the sport as manufacturers and top privateer teams make up the bulk of the grid, but oftentimes it’s the heart and passion from the smaller teams that ingests a lot of extra blood into a championship. The Performance Tech season to date has been a bright spot in a down year for the venerable, but overdue to be retired, PC class.

BMW’S FINAL HALF SURGE

BMW M6 GTLM finally on the board. Photo courtesy of IMSA

For a year and a half it looked like BMW Team RLL couldn’t buy a break with its heavier M6 GTLM but the winds of change (one could say somewhat Balance of Performance-assisted) have swept through the camp the last two races.

BMW hadn’t won a race in the GT Le Mans class since September 2015, the now final win for the Z4 GTE at Circuit of The Americas. It’s now won back-to-back races in as many weeks with the M6, the first and second wins for the car as the second half of its final season begins before the M8 comes to life next year.

A final caution aided Alexander Sims at Watkins Glen to consolidate his fuel strategy in the No. 25 car he shared with Bill Auberlen. Auberlen then added this first win in the M6 to the first win in the Z4 (2013) and first win in the M3 (2009) among recent BMW GTE spec cars.

“I am extremely proud of this team,” Bobby Rahal said after the Watkins Glen win. “It was a tough fight today with the win not assured until that last yellow helped us with fuel mileage. Alexander and Bill did a great job, but it could have equaling been John and Martin’s day if now for an errant piece of a competitor’s car puncturing the radiator.”

The John Edwards and Martin Tomczyk pairing finally got a result of their own in CTMP, coming second in their No. 24 BMW to the sister No. 25 car, which completed a two-week sweep and brought them to within three points of Antonio Garcia and Jan Magnussen for the class championship lead in the No. 3 Corvette C7.R.

INTENSE GTLM TITLE FIGHT DEVELOPING

No. 3 Corvette still leads GTLM, but two Fords and BMW are chasing. Photo courtesy of IMSA

Garcia and Magnussen are driving as well as ever in spite of being in the oldest car in class – the C7.R now in its fourth year – and with refuelling restrictor changes having hamstrung this team on the BoP side of the equation. Corvette’s made a habit of winning when their backs are against the wall and how this pairing will battle the rest of the way with five races remaining: Lime Rock, Road America, VIR, Monterey and Road Atlanta, will be interesting to watch.

They’re three points ahead of Sims and Auberlen (182-179), while the pair of Ford Chip Ganassi Racing Ford GTs (Dirk Mueller and Joey Hand on 172 and Richard Westbrook and Ryan Briscoe on 169) are still perfectly within striking range with a win and a bit of bad luck elsewhere.

Porsche’s looked the business too with its new mid-engined Porsche 911 RSR but at 23 points back, it’d take a lot to go right for Dirk Werner and Patrick Pilet to leapfrog up the order. A spate of late-race puncture and engine issues have taken both the Nos. 911 and 912 cars out of contention, limiting the overall results for them.

Bad luck sees the second Corvette of Milner and Oliver Gavin just sixth in points, 33 behind their teammates. Their inadvertent win and the No. 3 car’s unfortunate loss at Long Beach – and the 18-point swing that went with it – looms larger every race.

THE NO. 93 ACURA, 63 FERRARIS HIT THEIR STRIDE IN GTD

No. 93 Acura and No. 63 Ferrari have been on a roll in GTD. Photo courtesy of IMSA

The hottest pairings in GT Daytona are without question the No. 93 Michael Shank Racing Acura NSX GT3 of Andy Lally and Katherine Legge and the No. 63 Scuderia Corsa Ferrari 488 GT3 of Alessandro Balzan and Christina Nielsen.

The Lally/Legge pairing won their second straight race in a blaze of patriotic glory at the Glen, and followed it up with their third straight podium by coming second at CTMP. Nielsen and Balzan have rebounded perfectly from their engine issues at Daytona with six straight podiums, albeit no wins, to have moved into the title lead by eight points (203-195) over Jeroen Bleekemolen and Ben Keating, who’ve hit a rough patch since June with three tough races in their No. 33 Riley Motorsports-Team AMG Mercedes AMG-GT3. Lally and Legge are third in points, 24 back, with a title not impossible to fathom but with the top two needing to both hit trouble to make it a more realistic prospect.

It’s the No. 57 Stevenson Motorsports Audi R8 LMS that finally broke through this weekend at CTMP though, ending respective winless droughts for the talented American pair of Lawson Aschenbach and Andrew Davis. The win was made even more special as it was in tribute to a crew member, Dexter Johnson, they’ve lost recently, and also capped off Stevenson’s banner weekend where its new Chevrolet Camaro GT4.R won the Continental Tire SportsCar Challenge race on Saturday.

OTHER NOTES

  • Team Penske’s sports car program seems due to be announced shortly and once the cat finally, officially comes out of the bag there it will end the worst-kept secret in sports car racing the last year or so.
  • IMSA ramps up for Road America next month as that’s the traditional “state of the series” venue, where schedules and other business-of-racing topics are presented to key stakeholders. Lime Rock Park is next in a couple weeks but sees only the WeatherTech Championship GT classes and the Continental Tire SportsCar Challenge on site.
  • Despite sixth and seventh place finishes, the No. 10 Konica Minolta Cadillac team still leads Prototype overall by 19 points with three races remaining. This is the first time this team has finished outside the top-five in consecutive races since coming sixth at Detroit and Watkins Glen in 2015.
  • Mazda Motorsports scored top-five finishes with both its cars for the second time this season at CTMP. Mazda did that twice last year, as well.
  • PR1/Mathiasen was unlucky to end how it did with David Ostella turned over at the end of the race, but fortunately the Canadian was OK. Co-driver Nick Boulle impressed all weekend, qualifying ahead of Tom Long’s Mazda in his Prototype debut and only 1.8 seconds off the pole – a handy job for the Dallas native in his third IMSA start this year, with as many different teams (Performance Tech and BAR1 in PC at Daytona and COTA). Olivier Pla and Jose Gutierrez showcased the car’s full potential a week earlier at Watkins Glen, before Gutierrez missed CTMP.
  • Lexus continued to progress as Sage Karam got the car’s first pole at CTMP and he and Scott Pruett finished fifth for the 3GT Racing Lexus RC F GT3 first top-five of the year. It was good to see the sister car rebuilt after Jack Hawksworth’s heavy accident in practice on Saturday.
  • Change Racing posted its best 2017 finish with sixth for Jeroen Mul and Corey Lewis at CTMP in the No. 16 Lamborghini Huracán GT3. After a year of cartoon anvils and bad luck chasing them around, it was a nice result for the Robby Benton-led team.
  • Joerg Bergmeister returned to the No. 73 Park Place Motorsports Porsche 911 GT3 R after missing Watkins Glen; he and Patrick Lindsey ended ninth at CTMP as the Porsche continues to fight an uphill battle in the GTD class.
  • Turner Motorsport has delivered two solid finishes, third with Jens Klingmann and Justin Marks at Watkins Glen, then fourth with Klingmann and sprint race co-driver Bret Curtis at CTMP.
  • Townsend Bell and Bill Sweedler will race at Lime Rock in their No. 23 Alex Job Racing Audi R8 LMS, per Sportscar365. This comes on an off weekend for the Verizon IndyCar Series and will allow the NBCSN IndyCar analyst and his usual sports car co-driver a crack at the GT-only sprint race.
  • Kenton Koch swept the PC series races at CTMP for P1 Motorsports in his Ligier JS P3.
  • The PC series was the only additional IMSA series beyond the WeatherTech Championship and Continental Tire SportsCar Challenge at CTMP, but Watkins Glen was a different story. The story there was a heavy accident in the first Porsche GT3 Cup Challenge USA by Yokohama race there, where several drivers were sore but there weren’t serious injuries. Full results from all series, all races at the Glen and CTMP can be found here.

Why it’s important for Fernando Alonso to be in the Indianapolis 500

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It seemed so natural, so logical that Fernando Alonso would be part of McLaren in the 104thIndianapolis 500, it likely could have been announced last August.

NBCSports.com gave all the reasons why an Alonso reunion with McLaren at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway made the most sense last week.

Tuesday afternoon, it became official.

Arrow McLaren SP announced the two-time Formula One World Champion as its third driver for the Indy 500. He joins full-time NTT IndyCar Series drivers, rookies Oliver Askew and Pato O’Ward, on the Chevrolet team.

In a world where social media allows everyone to voice an opinion, there have been some who have asked, “Why is it so important that Fernando Alonso compete in the Indianapolis 500?”

To back up their point, the 33-driver starting lineup already includes the legendary names of the NTT IndyCar Series. From five-time IndyCar champion Scott Dixon to three-time Indy 500 winner Helio Castroneves, to Indy 500 winners Alexander Rossi, Will Power, Simon Pagenaud and Ryan Hunter-Reay to two-time champion IndyCar champion Josef Newgarden, the lineup is full of big names.

On the grand scale of international motorsports, however, Alonso has the charisma and star power that transcends into the mainstream of popularity.

“Having Fernando in the Indy 500 is going to be great for IndyCar, for the Indy 500 and for the fans,” said Arrow McLaren SP co-owner Sam Schmidt. “I can’t wait to see that get started.

“On behalf of Ric (Peterson, another co-owner of the team) and myself, Fernando needs to be in the 500, he needs to have an opportunity to win and that would be mega for IndyCar. For all of those reasons, we kept our foot on the gas and tried to position our team as the team of choice. Although we haven’t won, we have shown pace there and ran at the front. Now that we are with Chevrolet, we feel that we can get it done.

“Our team of guys is fantastic. We have been preparing for this for a long time and we are poised to get it done. Ric and I are very excited about this.”

McLaren CEO Zak Brown has a long and close relationship with Alonso. Brown was in charge of Alonso’s Formula One program. Last year when Alonso did not compete in F1, he remained under contract as a McLaren “Ambassador.”

His contract with McLaren ended on December 31, 2019. He officially rejoined the team with Tuesday’s Indy 500 announcement.

“He creates a tremendous amount of attention wherever he goes,” Brown said of Alonso. “When we did the first test at Indy in 2017, the live digital feed got over a couple million followers. Fernando will draw a lot of global attention to Indianapolis, to IndyCar, to our partners and to the sport as a whole.

“He is a great addition. He is an ambassador to the sport. He very much enjoys the way he is embraced in Indianapolis.”

HOW THEY GOT BACK TOGETHER

With so many obstacles in the way between Alonso competing for any other team at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, it just made sense that his best situation, and only situation, would come with the McLaren-backed operation.

But it was certainly a long, strange trip to get there.

“Clearly, Fernando was deep in conversations with Michael Andretti,” McLaren CEO Zak Brown responded to a question from NBC Sports.com in a private teleconference Tuesday. “Short of Roger Penske’s team, he believes Michael’s team is the most successful team at Indianapolis, certainly in most recent times.

“If you are Fernando Alonso and you want to win Indianapolis, then Andretti is clearly on your short list.

“We had a strong desire to run him. Fernando didn’t want to take a decision until after Paris-Dakar because he wanted to be very focused on that event. He was in no rush. He had two good opportunities. We kept him informed of some of the offseason moves we made. We secured Craig Hampson (as technical director after a successful term as Sebastien Bourdais’ engineer). When he was ready to make his decision, we had all of our pieces in place.

“He chose to move forward with us.”

Alonso’s best days at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway came in an Andretti Autosport-prepared Honda. That was in 2017 when the McLaren Honda Andretti team got the Formula One Ace up to speed quickly. Alonso qualified fifth on the grid off 33, led 27 laps and was in contention for the victory before his Honda engine blew up with 21 laps remaining.

Alonso came, he saw, and he nearly conquered the Indianapolis 500.

Alonso’s worst days at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway came in a McLaren-prepared Chevrolet. That was last year when one mistake after another showed how unprepared the McLaren operation was to take on the Indy 500 on its own. The list of faux paus was so long and legendary, there is no reason to recount them.

It all added up to one of the biggest names in international motorsports getting bumped out of the 33-car starting lineup by unheralded Kyle Kaiser of Juncos Racing.

McLaren officials knew the best way to succeed at Indianapolis was to join forces with a full-time IndyCar Series team. The main obstacle in that was Honda teams were ordered by corporate headquarters in Japan that the company’s days of doing business with McLaren were over. This came after disparaging and critical comments were made about the Honda Formula One engine McLaren used during a horrendous 2017 Formula One season.

Under no circumstances would American Honda and Honda Performance Development be allowed to make a deal with McLaren.

Brown found a partner at what was then known as Arrow Schmidt Peterson, but that was a Honda team. In order to make the deal work, Arrow Schmidt Peterson would have to break the final year of its contract with Honda and switch to Chevrolet.

Arrow McLaren SP was announced on August 9, 2019. Alonso was not part of that announcement.

He was attempting to negotiate a deal with Andretti Autosport and the team was willing to make it happen. Sponsors were signed and decisions were made leading to an expected announcement of an Alonso-Andretti combination for the Indy 500.

Honda Japan said no. They were held firm with Alonso for the same reasons they didn’t want to do business with McLaren.

That meant Alonso would have to find a Chevrolet team for the Indy 500. Team Penske wasn’t interested in increasing to five cars at Indy. Ed Carpenter Racing also said no to expanding to four entries.

All paths led back to Arrow McLaren SP.

“It’s a great day in the history of our team,” co-owner Sam Schmidt said. “We’ve had a lot of changes recently. Arrow McLaren SP is a fantastic cooperation of the future of our company. This just raises the bar. Everyone on our team is a true racer, wants to win and wants to win the Indy 500 and the championship. Every move we have made over the last two years has been geared towards achieving those dreams. This is one step further.

“Fernando Alonso, two world championships, two WEC’s, Le Mans and the Rolex 24 Hours of Daytona. He has made it perfectly clear the Indy 500 is the missing link there. We all know how competitive he was previously.

“For our team, we want to tap into his experience. We have two exciting rookies with Oliver Askew and Pato O’Ward. We really think being around him for the month of May will help them raise their game and understand what it takes to be a true, top-level, world-renowned driver. For all of those reasons, we have been working very hard on this for quite some time and we are very excited to announce Fernando Alonso as part of our team for the Indy 500.”

THE TWO SIDES CONTINUED TO NEGOTIATE, EVEN WHEN IT APPEARED ALONSO WOULD GO TO ANDRETTI

Although it appears this deal was put together quickly, Brown and Schmidt emphasized that was not the case.

“Actually, it’s been in the works for quite some time,” Brown said. “Fernando is quite a thoughtful individual when he takes a decision on what he wants to race. Paris-Dakar, from the moment he decided he was interested in it, he wanted to test, he wanted to get to know the car, he wanted to get to know the team and ultimately made his decision. This is something we’ve been speaking to Alonso about for a while.

“The new recruits, specifically Craig Hampson, we had a good test at COTA. These were things as Fernando made his final decision helped get him over the hump. There was speculation he would go elsewhere with parallel conversations that were going on.”

Schmidt was even more decisive in the team’s negotiations with Alonso.

“It seems like a bit of a whirlwind announcement, but we have been talking since November,” Schmidt said. “We’ve always run a third car at Indy. This will be a very, very well-prepared, thought-out deal. Craig Hampson will be the engineer and will be staffed by full-time, quality personnel.

“There has been some talk about the Grand Prix in a preparatory fashion for the Indy 500, but so far, we don’t have that in consideration.”

ALONSO’S THOUGHTS ON HIS RETURN

In a separate interview with Leigh Diffey of NBC Sports, Alonso admitted he had several teams to consider and McLaren was always in that group.

“We had some conversations,” Alonso said. “I already said last year I wanted to explore more options. I’d been talking with Andretti as well and some other teams. Andretti and McLaren are the ones I feel in my heart are like family. At the end, it was the natural choice to go with McLaren, especially after last year and give the fans something back after the disappointment of last year.

“I think McLaren is one of those teams that are part of motorsports. Being in F1 and IndyCar doing all the races. That shows and proves how McLaren is committed to the sport. The fans will love that commitment.”

Alonso has long dreamed of winning the international “Triple Crown” of motorsports. That includes victories in the Grand Prix of Monaco, the 24 Hours of Le Mans and the Indianapolis 500.

Alonso behind the wheel of the famed Marmon Wasp, the first winning car in the 1911 Indianapolis 500 — INDYCAR Photo

Alonso has already conquered Monaco and Le Mans. Indy remains the final event to master for the driver from Spain.

“The Indy 500 completes the big three races in motorsports, and three completely different disciplines,” Alonso explained. “It makes you quite a complete driver. That’s what I’m looking for in this stage of my career. The Indy 500 is probably the biggest priority for me now.

“Oval racing is unique, but the Indianapolis Motor Speedway even more. It’s a huge place. All the facilities are quite big. The circuit, there are four corners, but all very different. The traffic, the slipstream, the strategy, the tire degradation. The downforce you run differently from practice. The race, you are adjusting downforce. Even if it seems a simple way to drive, over 200 laps, you never repeat the same line or speed in any laps. It’s quite difficult to adjust the minimum settings in the car.”

THE IMPORTANCE OF RUOFF AS THE SPONSOR

The key to completing the deal was allowing mortgage firm Ruoff to join Arrow McLaren SP after agreeing to back Alonso with Andretti.

“Ruoff is a partner of Michael’s, he’s a good friend of mine and a partner in Australia,” Brown explained, referring to the Virgin Australia SuperCar team. “As he was having his conversations with Fernando, Ruoff was looking for something with big impact and exposure. When Michael and Fernando were unable to get their deal together, Ruoff asked Michael if he would mind going where Fernando goes because they know he will draw a tremendous amount of attention and Michael has all of his title deals done. Michael gave his blessing, he cut a deal with Ruoff, and we are excited to have them with us for the month of May.

“Right now, Fernando is going to be laser focused on the Indianapolis 500. I think he would enjoy IndyCar racing, but he is unsure of what he wants to do in 2021. The door is open, but there are no plans or discussions about racing beyond Indy at this point.”

KEEP THE MILK COLD

Alonso said it feels good to be back at Indy; to have another chance to win the Indianapolis 500. Despite last year’s major disappointment, Alonso is ready to recapture the glory he experienced in 2017.

“Definitely once you experience the Indy 500, it’ll remain always in your heart,” Alonso said. “I think the Indy 500 is on top of all the events I’ve ever participated. The atmosphere, the adrenaline, the traditions all the celebrations before the race. Even the milk! It arrives in a fridge Sunday morning and goes to the Pagoda.

“There are things as a driver you understand the importance of the moment and how big that race is worldwide.”

And that is why it is important that drivers such as Alonso compete in the Indianapolis 500. It’s an event that is bigger than the sport itself.

Follow Bruce Martin on Twitter at @BruceMartin_500