Photo courtesy of IMSA

IMSA’s Prototype grid for 2018 Rolex 24 taking early form

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The first real domino in the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship silly season is the Prototype class, and before the end of October, most of the seats are either confirmed or nearing completion.

Upwards of 20 Prototype cars, split between Daytona Prototype international (DPi) manufacturer models and LMP2 chassis are possible for the season-opening Rolex 24 at Daytona. IMSA put together a list of 10 questions about the Prototype class a week ago.

Here’s a look at what’s already confirmed and what could still be to come:

DPis

Watkins Glen podium. Photo courtesy of IMSA
  • Tequila Patron ESM Nissan Onroak DPi: Ryan Dalziel, Scott Sharp; Johannes van Overbeek, Pipo Derani. The team will enter 2018 with the same full-season lineup it ended 2017 with, when both the No. 22 (Road America) and No. 2 (Petit Le Mans) Nissans won overall. Who will the team’s third drivers be? That’s an intriguing question.
  • Acura Team Penske Acura ARX-05: Juan Pablo Montoya, Dane Cameron; Helio Castroneves, Ricky Taylor; Simon Pagenaud, Graham Rahal. An open-wheel heavy lineup here as Montoya and Castroneves are split between the team’s full-season cars, sharing with Cameron and Taylor respectively. Pagenaud and Cameron have co-driven together at two separate teams before (Sahlen, Action Express) while Rahal makes his Penske debut within this program. Testing has been busy for this entire program over the last couple months.
  • No. 10 Konica Minolta Cadillac DPi-V.R: Jordan Taylor, Renger van der Zande. The rapid Dutchman replaces Ricky Taylor alongside Jordan at a lineup that will feature a mix of speed, quirkiness, and determination to repeat the 2017 title. Ryan Hunter-Reay was the team’s third driver at Petit Le Mans, but Wayne Taylor Racing is yet to confirm whether he’ll continue once more in this role in 2018.
  • Action Express Racing, No. 5 Mustang Sampling Racing & No. 31 Whelen Engineering Racing  Cadillac DPi-V.R: Filipe Albuquerque, Joao Barbosa, Christian Fittipaldi; Felipe Nasr, Eric Curran, Mike Conway, Stuart Middleton. Revised lineup here with the Filipe/Felipe combo new full-season drivers, Fittipaldi shifted to endurance races only, Conway retained and Middleton the new Sunoco Whelen Challenge winner.
  • Mazda Team Joest, Mazda RT24-P: Drivers officially TBA here but expect a combination of ex-Audi LMP1 aces coupled with at least two Mazda drivers to be retained. Tristan Nunez and Jonathan Bomarito have undertaken testing of the revised Mazda thus far with Oliver Jarvis and Rene Rast rumored to be in the frame for seats here as well, Jarvis full-season and Rast endurance. While Mazda hasn’t formally confirmed its driver lineup yet, a Mazda spokesperson told NBC Sports they hope the lineup will be revealed “sooner rather than later” once formalities are completed.

LMP2s

The JDC-Miller Oreca 07. Photo courtesy of IMSA
  • JDC-Miller Motorsports Oreca 07 Gibson: Two cars planned for John Church’s program here with the full-season pairing of Stephen Simpson and Misha Goikhberg anticipated, if not outright confirmed, back in the “JDC Banana Boat” for another season. The team has begun testing for 2018. A number of scenarios are being considered for the team’s second car.
  • CORE autosport Oreca 07 Gibson: Colin Braun, Jon Bennett. CORE returns to prototypes after successful PC class run through 2016, but after a tough year in GTD. Third and/or fourth drivers here could determine this car’s hopes.
  • BAR1 Motorsports Riley Multimatic Mk. 30 Gibson: Brian Alder’s team steps up from PC to P but will face stiffer competition in deeper field. Drivers are TBD.
  • United Autosports Ligier JS P217 Gibson: Fernando Alonso, Paul di Resta, Will Owen, Lando Norris, Phil Hanson. Two cars from the Zak Brown and Richard Dean-run team are set for Daytona with the highest profile guest star confirmed so far (Alonso), one other F1 ace also making his sports car debut (di Resta) and three young chargers.
  • D3+Transformers Racing Ligier JSP217 Gibson: Robbie Kerr. Ian and Simon Dawson return to action with a planned Ligier and Kerr, who’d been with the team in previous LMP2 incarnations, its first announced driver. Big plans courtesy of its Hasbro link-up, but big questions as well depending on if the team lives up to the hype of its announcement at Road Atlanta.

TBD OR AWAITING OFFICIAL CONFIRMATION

Nos. 90, 52, 38 cars all yet to reveal full 2018 plans. Photo courtesy of IMSA

Troy Flis’ VISIT FLORIDA Racing team could look entirely different in 2018, losing at least van der Zande for sure with additional questions looming about the team’s sponsorship (VISIT FLORIDA), second driver (Marc Goossens) and car choice (a Cadillac DPi has been rumored, but not confirmed after running both a Riley Multimatic and Ligier this year). It’d be a surprise if the No. 90 car wasn’t back in 2018, but this team could be significantly changed year-on-year.

Bobby Oergel’s PR1/Mathiasen Motorsports team flew the flag for the Ligier JS P217 Gibson package all season but fought through a tough campaign with a rotating driver lineup alongside primary driver Jose Gutierrez and persistent electrical issues. The team’s PC success didn’t translate in its step up, save for a few occasionally good qualifying efforts.

Brent O’Neill’s Performance Tech Motorsports team is poised to step up to Prototype after dominating the final PC class season, but coming up just shy of perfection. O’Neill explored the Oreca chassis option but seems poised to go elsewhere with a base Dallara P217, owing to further support there. A combination of James French, Pato O’Ward and Kyle Masson seems likely to drive once again, but with what full-season lineup? Masson could move into a full-time role after dominating IMSA’s PC series in the MPC class, and O’Ward is still keen to keep his open-wheel hopes alive. O’Ward did test an Indy Lights car for Team Pelfrey at the Chris Griffis Memorial Mazda Road to Indy Test earlier this month.

Peter Baron’s Starworks Motorsport team shifted out of prototype after Sebring, ending its PC program but also having announced an LMP2 program early last year. The Starworks team however achieved success at year’s end as Land Motorsport’s U.S. technical team partner in its last two U.S. races in Petit Le Mans and Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca, in an Audi R8 LMS, winning Petit and coming up just short in Monterey. Could we see a Starworks presence back in a stacked prototype field in 2018, or will Starworks continue in its support role to other programs?

And then there’s the flurry of potential European extra teams beyond United Autosports that could arrive as part of IMSA’s 36 Hours of Florida initiative announced earlier this year.

Rebellion Racing and the American DragonSpeed team, which both race primarily in Europe (Rebellion in FIA WEC and DragonSpeed in ELMS, where it won the LMP2 title), were the two “extra” team entries that raced at this year’s Rolex 24 at Daytona.

It all adds up to a tantalizing couple of months to see how the Prototype grid looks for next year’s IMSA season opener.

F1 Preview – 2018 French Grand Prix

Photo: Getty Images
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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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