Photo courtesy of IMSA

IndyCar, Formula 1 drivers use Roar to set baseline for Rolex 24 later this month

Leave a comment

They didn’t necessarily feature prominently at the top of the time sheets, but teams and drivers from the Verizon IndyCar Series and FIA Formula 1 World Championship definitely made their presence known at this weekend’s Roar Before the 24 at Daytona International Speedway.

On the team side, one of the most-high profile stories entering the weekend was the first official appearance of Acura Team Penske at an IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship event. This weekend’s running ultimately does not count toward the Rolex 24 Hours race Jan. 27-28 or championship results, nor do the lap times necessarily indicate strong performances.

It’s entirely possible that teams did not have setting the outright fastest times as their ultimate agenda, but seeing the Penske team take part in an official IMSA event was noteworthy in and of itself.

On the whole, the weekend appeared to be a successful one for Roger Penske’s squad. Their Acura ARX-05 chassis appeared to gain speed as the weekend progressed, beginning 12th and 15th on the speed charts before ending qualifying fifth (the No. 6 entry) and sixth (the No. 7 entry) in the first official qualifying session of the year, one that decided the order in which teams select their pit and garage stalls for the Rolex 24.

Further still, the team suffered no major setbacks. They did not appear to suffer any mechanical problems with their cars and none suffered contact at any point during the weekend.

Looking at the overall speeds across the weekend, the fastest lap of the No. 6 entry was a 1:36.988 from Dane Cameron, good for sixth overall across the three days, while the No. 10 turned the tenth fastest lap overall, with Ricky Taylor turning in a 1:37.231.

All told, it made for a solid debut for Penske and Acura. Also of note: IndyCar drivers Simon Pagenaud and Graham Rahal ranked 29th quickest and 49th quickest, respectively, in the overall fastest lap rankings.

In GTLM, Ford Chip Ganassi Racing, whose No. 66 entry is the defending winner of the Rolex 24, threw down the proverbial gauntlet, dominating most of the weekend and spending all seven sessions near the front of the leaderboard, if not in the lead outright. In fact, the team swept all three practice sessions on Saturday, putting one of their cars at the top in each one.

Sunday’s qualifying session saw Joey Hand, in the No. 66 Ford GT drop a time of 1:43.610, the fastest GTLM lap of the weekend. Further, three of the five fastest laps of the weekend came from Chip Ganassi drivers. Ryan Briscoe, in the No. 67 entry, turned the third fastest lap overall while Sebastien Bourdais, one of Hand’s co-drivers in the No. 66, ended up fifth quickest overall. Scott Dixon, the third driver entered in the No. 67 entry, ended up 11th quickest in the overall GTLM lap rankings.

In short, it was a simply dominating performance for a Chip Ganassi squad that is looking to repeat its 2017 Rolex 24 triumph.

On the other end of GTLM, BMW Team RLL, using brand new BMW M8 GTLM machines, languished near the bottom of the GTLM field most of the weekend. In fact, their entries took up the bottom eight lap times across in the GTLM lap rankings. Alexander Sims, in the No. 25 entry, was the fastest of the BMW Team RLL drivers, with a best lap of 1:45.056, good enough for only 20th overall of the GTLM drivers.

They finished the qualifying session in seventh (No. 25) and eighth (No. 24).

In the GT Daytona field, new IndyCar entrant and long-time IMSA stalwart Michael Shank Racing enjoyed a competitive weekend in a very deep GTD field, even going fastest in Practice 4 on Saturday afternoon with the No. 93 Acura NSX GT3.

Their strong form continued on into qualifying on Sunday, with Alvaro Parente putting the No. 86 entry in a solid fourth at the end of the session. Lawson Aschenbach qualified the No. 93 entry in 12th respectively.

In a release posted on the team’s website, team owner Michael Shank displayed a great deal of enthusiasm about how the weekend went, highlighting a significant improvement over last year’s debut with the NSX.

“Everything has improved so much from last year at this time,” Shank revealed. “We have made huge gains with the car and I am very happy with it.

“Qualifying was pretty much where we thought we would be for right now so we are fairly pleased. The 93 car didn’t handle exactly how we thought it would but Alvaro (Parente) did a great job in the 86 and got us a good spot as far as where we will be set up for the 24. I feel very good about where we are and how much progress we’ve made.”

On the driver front, Tristan Vautier was second quickest overall, with a best lap of 1:36.037 for a resurgent Spirit of Daytona Racing. Ryan Hunter-Reay was seventh quickest overall, Sebastian Saavedra 38th, and Spencer Pigot 47th. IndyCar on NBCSN’s Townsend Bell was 41st overall in the GT Daytona class.

On the Formula 1 side, Fernando Alonso had what on the surface appeared to be a quiet weekend. Alonso ended only one session inside the top 10, and he and teammate Bruno Senna — nephew of the late F1 great Ayrton Senna — only put the Nos. 23 and 32 Ligier LMP2 Gibsons in 12th and 15th during Sunday’s qualifying.

Alonso’s fastest lap, at 1:37.515, ranked only 21st on the overall list of fastest driver lap times across the weekend. But, a deeper analysis reveals that Alonso’s quick lap was actually the best from the three Ligier teams – AFS/PR1 Mathiasen Motorsport also entered a Ligier chassis.

Further still, this is the first time Alonso and his team, United Autosports, are visiting Daytona International Speedway and entering the Rolex 24, with Alonso entering a sports car race for the first time as well.

All told, the results of Alonso and United Autosports may not be quite as bad as they seem. Additionally, like Penske, they encountered no major mechanical problems and did not suffer damage from contact during the weekend, meaning they were able to maximize their time on track.

Alonso’s F1 counterpart, Lance Stroll, also had what appeared to be a quiet weekend, going 24th quickest across all drivers who turned lap times. However, his lap of 1:37.604 was the third best of Jackie Chan DCR JOTA drivers, behind teammates Alex Brundle (14th quickest) and Antonio Felix da Costa (19th quickest).

Like United Autosports, this is Jackie Chan DCR JOTA’s first time at the Rolex 24. And, also like United Autosports, they were able to complete the weekend without suffering contact or major mechanical problems.

Also of note: Lando Norris had the 37th quickest overall lap, while Paul Di Resta was 54th quickest overall.

Overall driver times are linked below. The first practice of the Rolex 24 takes place on January 25th.

Combined overall driver lap times

Follow@KyleMLavigne

IndyCar: Which drivers need to start or continue comebacks in 2019?

IndyCar
Leave a comment

With the 2018 IndyCar Series season already far back in our rearview mirror, it’s not too soon to start looking ahead to the 2019 campaign, which begins on March 10 at St. Petersburg, Florida.

When you look at how 2018 ended up, several drivers either didn’t have the season they had hoped for and are looking to make big comebacks in 2019, or perhaps began comebacks in 2018 after prior difficult seasons.

Let’s take a look at who is due – or in some cases, overdue – for an even stronger season in 2019:

RYAN HUNTER-REAY: RHR isn’t overdue by any stretch, having started his “comeback” of sorts in 2018. His fourth-place season finish was his best in the series since winning the championship in 2012.

He also earned two wins – Belle Isle II and the season finale at Sonoma – his first visits to victory lane since winning twice in 2015.

Had it not been for three DNFs in the second half of the season, Hunter-Reay likely could have finished in the top 3 at season’s end.

It was good to see him come back into prominence after frustration the last two seasons (12th in 2016 and 9th in 2017).

Hunter-Reay still has several more good years in him and it would not be surprising to see him finish even higher in 2019 – and potentially once again being a championship contender.

SIMON PAGENAUD: After winning the championship in 2016 and finishing second in 2017, Pagenaud definitely had an off-season by his usual standards in 2018, finishing sixth in the IndyCar standings.

The French-born driver failed to win a race for the first time since 2015 and had just two podium finishes (also the most since 2015).

One of the most telling stats from what was a frustrating campaign is Pagenaud and the No. 22 led a total of just 31 laps across the 17-race 2018 season, the fewest laps led in a single season in his entire IndyCar career.

He also had the second-worst average per-race finish of his career (8.6), after having average finishes of 6.1 in his championship season and 5.3 in 2017.

Of course, looking at things from a glass half-full viewpoint, Pagenaud went from a winless and disappointing 11th place finish in 2015 to become champion in 2016. Could history repeat itself in 2019?

By all measures, 2018 was definitely an off season for Pagenaud. Look for him to make a significant comeback in 2019.

Or, to borrow a line Pagenaud said to teammate Josef Newgarden during their early 2018 season “autograph battle,” it’s your move, bro, for 2019.

SEBASTIEN BOURDAIS: The French driver had perhaps the best comeback season of any driver in 2018.

When former CART champ Jimmy Vasser and James “Sulli” Sullivan joined forces with Dale Coyne Racing just prior to the start of the 2018 season, Bourdais was the hand-picked driver to carry the DCR with Vasser-Sullivan banner.

Bourdais did not disappoint. He started the season with a win at St. Petersburg and enjoyed his best overall season finish – seventh – in an Indy car since capturing the fourth of four straight CART/Champ Car World Series championships in 2007.

It was also Bourdais’ best career IndyCar finish, topping his previous best season finishes of 10th in both 2014 and 2015.|

Bourdais, who turns 40 in late February, finished the season strong with two top 5 and two other top 10 finishes in four of the last five races. That’s a good harbinger of even better things to come in 2019.

GRAHAM RAHAL: It was a tough season at times for Rahal, who turns 30 in early January.

Not only did he have his worst season finish – eighth – since 2014 (19th), he failed to win even one race (also for the first time since 2014) and had just one podium finish (2nd at St. Petersburg).

As if to add insult to injury, Rahal had two of his three season DNFs in his final two races (4th lap crash at Portland and a battery issue at Sonoma).

Rahal is overdue for the kind of season he had in 2015, when he won two races, had six podiums and finished a career-best fourth in the overall standings.

While Rahal has the equipment and personnel to do better, something just didn’t click in 2018. Will things turn around in 2019?

MARCO ANDRETTI: The grandson of Mario and son of Michael Andretti continues to be a work in progress – with emphasis on the word “progress” when it came to his 2018 performance.

Although he remains winless since 2011 and hasn’t had a podium finish since 2015, Marco Andretti still showed overall improvement in 2018, including earning his first pole (Belle Isle I) since 2013.

With a fifth-place finish in the season-ending race at Sonoma, Andretti jumped from 12th in the standings to finish the season tied for eighth place with Graham Rahal, Andretti’s best overall showing since finishing fifth in 2013.

Andretti had a strong second half of the 2018 season, with a top 5 in the season finale at Sonoma, as well as three top 11 finishes in five of the last eight races.

Don’t be surprised if he closes in on a top 5 finish in 2019. Andretti Autosport continues to improve overall as a team, particularly with Alexander Rossi, Ryan Hunter-Reay and now Andretti, as well.

JAMES HINCHCLIFFE: It was a strange season for the Mayor of Hinchtown.

He failed to qualify for the Indianapolis 500, had just one win and two podium finishes, yet ended up with a 10th place overall finish in the standings, his best performance since finishing 8th in both 2012 and 2013.

The Canadian driver went on a hot streak early in the second half of the season, winning at Iowa and finishing fourth in his hometown race in Toronto.

But DNFs at Pocono and Portland, as well as three other finishes of 14th (Mid-Ohio) and 15th (Gateway and Sonoma) likely cost him a chance of potentially finishing as high as eighth.

There was also the emotional, gut-wrenching crash involving Schmidt Peterson Motorsports teammate and longtime best friend, Robert Wickens, at Pocono. While Hinchcliffe tried to put on a happy face and showed support to his fallen mate, it wouldn’t be surprising if Wickens’ injury constantly dwelled on Hinchcliffe’s mind.

With the Indianapolis 500 heartbreak, the firing of engineer Lena Gade (who lasted just five races before her ouster), the injury to Wickens, and the overall second-half season struggles, Hinchcliffe is to be commended for finishing as high as he did in the final standings given the overall circumstances he had to endure.

At the same time, it’s likely a season he wants to wipe away from his memory bank and turn a forgettable season in 2018 into what Hinchcliffe and his team hope is an unforgettable season in 2019.

TONY KANAAN: A new team, new outlook and racing for legendary A.J. Foyt offered a great deal of promise for Tony Kanaan in 2018.

Unfortunately, the Brazilian native suffered through the worst season ever in his IndyCar career, finishing 16th in the overall standings.

Prior to 2018, Kanaan had experienced just one other season outside the top 10 (11th in 2013, the same year he won the Indianapolis 500).

Admittedly, TK, who turns 44 on December 31, is the oldest full-time driver on the circuit. But it doesn’t look like he’s lost much with age.

Rather, three DNFs and a career single-season low of having led just 20 laps over 17 races took its toll on Kanaan.

He will return for 2019, driving a second season for Foyt. But things need to dramatically improve for Kanaan, who hasn’t won a race since 2014.

Follow @JerryBonkowski