Brown on McLaren’s engine switch: ‘It’s time to move on’ (VIDEO)

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McLaren executive director Zak Brown joined F1 on NBC Sports’ live coverage of qualifying this morning to expand on the team’s impending switch from Honda to Renault engines for 2018, and the team’s progress this weekend (qualifying also re-airs tonight at 8 p.m. ET on NBCSN).

The expected strides from Honda never came and after three years, Brown pretty much said a change of direction was inevitable.

“Ultimately we knew we were in trouble in winter testing,” Brown told Bob Varsha, who fills in for Leigh Diffey this weekend (Diffey is in Sonoma for IndyCar coverage) alongside David Hobbs and Steve Matchett in the booth for NBCSN and CNBC’s F1 coverage.

“Year one, P9 in championship was somewhat to be expected with a new power unit. Year two, we got a little bit better. But we expected much better for this year. It obviously didn’t happen. It was three years of good effort. Everyone tried.

“We have a good relationship with Renault. They’ve won six of the last 12 championships. It was time to move on, and time to get back up. We have a lot of confidence in our relationship with Renault going forward. I’m disappointed things didn’t work out with Honda but as you know in racing, sometimes it works, and sometimes it doesn’t.”

If the team was to have Renault power now, Brown said the McLaren chassis would be good enough to threaten the Ferrari, Mercedes and Red Bull teams at the top of the charts.

“We would be near the top of the timesheets if not at the top,” he said. “We’re happy with progress. Drivers are happy. With similar horsepower we can do some fun stuff next year.”

Odds are still good for a big points haul this weekend in Singapore, though, if the reliability is there (race coverage starts Sunday at 7 a.m. ET on NBCSN).

McLaren scored nine of its 11 points this season at Hungary, when Fernando Alonso was sixth and Stoffel Vandoorne 10th. Alonso’s ninth place in Baku was the team’s only other score this year.

With Alonso eighth and Vandoorne ninth in qualifying for Sunday’s race, the team put both cars into Q3 for the third time this year – joining Monaco and Hungary. At Monaco, it was Jenson Button who did so with Alonso racing at the Indianapolis 500. However grid penalties hit both of them for power unit and gearbox issues, and Vandoorne started 12th and Button from pit lane.

Brown said sixth was a best case scenario for qualifying, seventh a more realistic target. They were just pipped by Nico Hulkenberg in his Renault for seventh today.

“We have a good race car. We’ve had a good race car all year. We knew Singapore would be one of our better races. Let’s finish where we start this weekend,” Brown told NBCSN.

“We have two really good drivers but have additional aerodynamics this weekend. It’s planted. Both happy. A little more grip over the bumps needed but we are happy.”

Neither Alonso nor Vandoorne was super happy in qualifying but still seek big results tomorrow.

“The car has been working well all weekend,” Alonso told NBCSN’s Will Buxton. “There’s been some issues in practice… (with) deployment for the power unit. Now everything is OK. We need the reliability to finish the race.

“It’s opportunity to score good points, so we can’t miss it.”

Vandoorne added to Buxton, “We’ve been competitive since the start. We expected to have both cars in Q3 and we got it. I’m reasonably happy. Q1 and Q2 were both good, then we missed a bit in Q3. Nonetheless it’s a good result.

“Hopefully we can go forward. Our race pace looks quite strong. With a bit of mayhem, we could benefit.”

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