Photo courtesy of IMSA

Acura Team Penske pushing, learning hard in Daytona testing

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There are a lot of standard, run-of-the-mill quotes used to describe the challenge of racing the Rolex 24 at Daytona that largely focus on endurance, persistence and compromise.

And then there is this gem from Juan Pablo Montoya offered during a break in testing for Acura Team Penske today at Daytona, to describe what this race entails.

“The best way to describe is it go down I-95, at 150 mph, running away from the police… that’s kinda the feel you get here,” Montoya said, to lead off a session with reporters Friday, which IMSA was gracious enough to stream live on Facebook.

“You feel like you’re being chased – or chasing someone. They stole your life and you need to get it back and you’re driving the wheels off it, in meantime people get in the way and you’re bouncing into people. It’s pretty cool.”

Canned quote that is not, and for Montoya, it’s also the precursor to both his and Acura Team Penske’s aspirations of coming in hot for the race debut of the new Acura ARX-05 at next year’s Rolex 24.

Penske’s drivers are completing a two-day test this week at Daytona and a two-day test next week at Sebring to continue the intense preparation for the 36 Hours of Florida out of the box to kick off the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship season. The Acura program joins Mazda among DPi manufacturers testing this week at Daytona.

Montoya’s already hailed the car’s early reliability from the first round of testing.

“The reliability of the car has been unbelievable. Acura came out with an engine that just runs. I think the pace we still need to work on it. It’s still early days for the car,” he said.

Montoya and Helio Castroneves are the two star attractions in Penske’s full-season lineup but both are well aware and focused on the fact it’ll be co-drivers Dane Cameron and Ricky Taylor that will ease their respective sports car transitions.

Montoya will share with Cameron (Simon Pagenaud is third driver), Castroneves with Taylor (Graham Rahal is third driver), and the older drivers are moving into a new position of being the relative newcomers learning from their significantly younger but championship-winning sports car veteran teammates.

“Yesterday for example, we were done running and we went for dinner just to talk about cars and get that relationship together,” Montoya said of Cameron, the 2016 Prototype class champion. “The two of us we can talk about what I like and he likes, and what I hate and he hates. So we stay away from the things we hate we can get to a nice compromise.”

Castroneves added, “People don’t realize they’re champions in the series and they have more experience than Juan Pablo and me. So having them as a reference to learn details is key… we’re talking about traction control, electronics and a lot of things we don’t use. We have to smooth it out. We have the current champ in my car. And he has another champ in his! We’re older guys, but we’re rookies.

“I’m not very good at sharing. But it’s another thing. Transitioning from IndyCar to sports car takes time. You gotta share the driving position, driving style, the setup. There is so much. At end of the day it’s a compromise. Like marriage. We all know that. Right now Ricky is phenomenal and Dane is as well. I’m looking forward to 2018.”

Team Penske’s maiden sports car race in its return, Petit Le Mans with the LMP2-spec Oreca 07 Gibson, was a hugely valuable learning experience for the team. Castroneves won the pole and the team recovered from Castroneves getting hit early on to finish third.

The work done this offseason is key in the preparation to ensuring the new car is ready to star out of the box at both next year’s Roar Before the Rolex 24 and crucially, the Rolex 24 itself.

“The competition level from other teams is incredible,” Castroneves said. “The rhythm in the race was stronger than we expected. We know what we need to do know. Focus on qualifying gets you to the front. There, 10 hours, weather changing, there’s so many different adversity. It was a great learning curve.

“Sure it’s a new team but not new in sports cars, or new in many aspects. We have experienced people around us. That’s one of the reasons we did Petit Le Mans. We’ll face different (challenges). There’s a lot to be prepared for. We’ll do everything in our power.”

Beyond their full-season bow in IMSA, Castroneves is confirmed for a return for next year’s Indianapolis 500 in a fourth Team Penske car.

Montoya’s options now seem limited to a fifth, as the primary Chevrolet test driver under INDYCAR’s directed 2018 Dallara universal body kit program would be highly unlikely to be released away from Penske and Chevrolet to a Honda-powered IndyCar effort. He updated his status today, following on from his most recent comments to NBCSN’s Will Buxton at the United States Grand Prix last month.

“I don’t think I will (race Indianapolis) at the moment,” Montoya said. “I think with Roger … I could either run with him if he wants; if not, I don’t think he’ll let me run anywhere else.”

Title contenders stumble on the streets of Toronto

Photo: IndyCar
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The championship picture of the Verizon IndyCar Series saw a massive shakeup after Sunday’s Honda Indy Toronto. While points leader Scott Dixon ended up in victory lane, his third win on the streets of Toronto and his third win of the 2018 season, all of his championship rivals stumbled.

Josef Newgarden, the pole sitter and second-place man in championship – he trailed Dixon by 33 points entering Sunday – led from the pole and looked to be a contender for the win, but a Lap 34 restart saw his day come apart.

Newgarden ran wide exiting the final corner coming to the green flag and smacked the outside wall. He plummeted through the field and pitted under caution – for a Turn 1 pileup involving Graham Rahal, Max Chilton, Ryan Hunter-Reay, Will Power, and Sebastien Bourdais – to allow the No. 1 Hitachi Chevrolet Team Penske group to examine the car for damage.

Newgarden continued on, but was never a contender the rest of the day, ultimately finishing ninth.

“I knew it would be low grip, but not zero grip. I just lost the front end completely,” Newgarden said in describing how the wall contact happened. “I feel terrible, it’s not fun to make a mistake.”

Alexander Rossi, who sits third in the championship, ran a steady sixth in the first stint until Lap 27, when contact with Will Power damaged his front wing. Rossi was then caught up in the melee on the Lap 34 restart, getting airborne over the left-front of his Andretti Autosport teammate Hunter-Reay.

Rossi again pitted for a new front wing – he had six stops in total – and ended up eighth on a day when he felt like a podium beckoned.

“It’s a pretty disappointing result. I don’t think we had the car to beat Scott (Dixon), but for sure with the problems that everyone had, we could’ve finished second. It’s been a difficult string of races,” Rossi said afterward.

Hunter-Reay, too, had a day forget. After going from sixth to third on the start, he spun his No. 28 DHL Honda into the Turn 3 Barrier on Lap 27. And like Rossi, he was caught up in the Lap 34 pileup, falling off the lead lap in the process.

Hunter-Reay languished in 16th at the checkered flag.

“It was a very unfortunate day and a big loss for us in points,” Hunter-Reay lamented. “The DHL Honda was running comfortable in third and pushing hard, but I had too much front brake lock and found the tire barrier – that’s my fault. Then after that, we got caught up in a wreck, which put us a lap down. From there we just fought to stay in front of the leader.”

Power, too, hit his struggles after the first stint, when contact with the Turn 11 wall, an incident similar to the one that his Team Penske teammate Newgarden had, bent the right-rear suspension of his No. 12 Verizon Chevrolet. He also had contact with Rossi later that lap.

Power lost two laps in the pits as the team made repairs, and he took the checkered flag in 18th.

“In the last corner, I brushed the wall and bent a rear toe link, so the car was a little bit out of whack. I didn’t even know that (Alexander) Rossi and I touched. I was just kind of trying to hang on until we got a yellow and could pit,” Power explained. “I’ve never had so many DNFs; not DNF for this race, but like a DNF in a season. Still, it’s kind of how this sport can go.”

All told, their struggles mean that Dixon leads the championship by 62 points over Newgarden. Rossi sits third, 70 points of the lead, followed by Hunter-Reay and Power, who sit 91 and 93 points out of the lead respectively.

And the next race, the Honda Indy 200 at Mid-Ohio (July 29 on NBCSN) won’t make it easy for them to make up ground, as Dixon’s record there is astoundingly strong. The four-time IndyCar champion has five wins at the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course, his most recent triumph coming in 2014, a race in which he famously came from last on the grid (22nd) to win.

Conversely, Newgarden, Rossi, Hunter-Reay, and Power have a combined one win at Mid-Ohio (Newgarden, last year).

However, the likes of Newgarden and Rossi still appear confident that they can make up for their Toronto struggles.

“We have to move on now and try to pick it back up. With the championship battle, we’ve got a long way to go. This doesn’t help but look, we have plenty of racing (left),” said Newgarden. “We need to keep our head up here. We’re going to be just fine, we’ve got fast cars and the best in the business. If we get our mistakes sorted out, we’re going to be just fine.”

Rossi, who finished sixth at Mid-Ohio last year, echoed similar sentiment, and thinks Mid-Ohio presents an opportunity to get back on track.

“We’re very good at Mid-Ohio, we’re kind of circling Toronto and Mid-Ohio as two races we were going to be pretty good at, so we got to reset, man, and just execute,” Rossi explained afterward. “We’re fast. We’re there every weekend. That’s the important thing. It’s a lot harder to be outside the top 10 and looking for answers. We’re fighting for pole every weekend. We’re in the Fast Six virtually every weekend, so you’re putting yourself in position to have a good result, it hasn’t come really since Texas.”

The 2018 championship is far from over – the season-ending GoPro Grand Prix of Sonoma being a double-points event helps ensure as much. But, if Dixon does claim the 2018 title, Toronto may be the race that serves as the turning point.

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