Photo courtesy of IMSA

New (but familiar) faces emerging in the IMSA paddock with Felipe Nasr, Tristan Vautier and Matt McMurry

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As an international event that attracts drivers and teams from around the world, the Rolex 24 at Daytona sometimes features unknowns to the American sports car racing scene. And while they don’t always feature prominently in the storylines of the event, last weekend’s Roar Before the 24 test session indicated that quite a few could run at the sharp end of the grid.

Here are drivers who could make their marks at the Rolex 24, which will be held Jan. 27-28 at Daytona International Speedway.

FELIPE NASR – WHELEN ENGINEERING ACTION EXPRESS RACING

Former Sauber F1 driver Felipe Nasr likely wasn’t on many lists as a driver positioned to be in a leading role, but he stole the spotlight in a big way at the Roar.

The 25-year-old Brazilian set the fastest time of the weekend, pacing the Sunday afternoon qualifying session to give the No. 31 Action Express DPi-V.R top pick of pit and garage stall.

Though new to American racing, Nasr was a star on the rise three years ago in Formula One. As a rookie with Sauber in 2015, he scored points in two of his three races, finishing fifth at the Australian Grand Prix and eighth at the Chinese Grand Prix.

His 2015 campaign in F1 totaled six finishes in the points, a strong showing for a rookie driver with one of the smaller teams. However, his 2016 campaign went off the rails. He had only one points finish – ninth at the Brazilian Grand Prix –  and was ousted when the team signed Pascal Wehrlein for the 2017 season.

Sidelined for 2017, Nasr looked stateside for an opportunity and landed a good one with Action Express, which had victories with both of its cars in 2017 and won three consecutive Prototype championships from 2014-16 in the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship.

Don’t be surprised if Nasr is a fixture at the front of the field — not just during the Rolex 24 but during the 2018 season.

TRISTAN VAUTIER/MATT MCMURRY – SPIRIT OF DAYTONA RACING

The resurgent (and rebranded) Spirit of Daytona Racing spent a lot of time at the front of the Prototype class, ranking in the top four of every session except the last (which suspension damage ended early for the team).

After struggling with three chassis in 2017 (two Multimatic/Riley LMP2s before switching to a Ligier JS P217 and getting a win), the team’s rebound extends to its drivers.

Full-time driver Tristan Vautier is also on the comeback trail in the American racing scene. A champion of the 2012 Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires, Vautier seemed on track for stardom in the IndyCar Series after a promising 2013 rookie campaign.

But he didn’t return to IndyCar until 2015, running a partial season with Dale Coyne Racing. Over the past two seasons, he raced only once in IndyCar, subbing for the injured Sebastien Bourdais in June 2017 at Texas Motor Speedway (where he ran in the top five much of the race prior to a lap 151 crash).

Aside from his sporadic presence in IndyCar, Vautier has been working on a budding sports car career. He contested the entire Blancpain GT Series Sprint Cup in 2016, winning a race along the way. And he spent the 2017 season as a full-time IMSA competitor, piloting a Mercedes-AMG GT3 for SunEnergy1 Racing. He set a GT Daytona class record on his way to scoring a pole at the 2017 Mobil 1 12 Hours of Sebring.

Alongside Vautier, Matt McMurry also represents something of an unknown quantity. At only 19, the Phoenix native lacks the seasoning in a lot of the Prototype class’ heavy hitters.

A closer look at his career reveals a driver who is remarkably accomplished. In 2014, he became the youngest driver to enter and finish the 24 Hours of Le Mans (with Caterham Racing).

McMurry also is a veteran of the Rolex 24 with three previous starts, one from the pole position with Michael Shank Racing in 2015 and two in the GT Daytona class with Park Place Motorsports in 2016 and 2017.

Now with a high-profile team seeking to be a contender, Vautier and McMurry could become household names for race fans in 2018.

GRT Grasser Racing Team

From the “Where did they come from?” file, GRT Grasser Racing Team – a full-time Blancpain GT team slated to run only the Tequila Patron North American Endurance Cup events in IMSA – emerged from a very deep GT Daytona class as the fastest entry from the Roar Before the 24.

But a quick glance at its record in European sports car competition reveals a bit of a powerhouse, especially in its recent history. Drivers Mirko Bortolotti and Christian Engelhart brought home a 2017 Blancpain GT championship, and Engelhart and Rolf Ineichen won the 2017 ADAC GT Masters season finale.

It remains to be seen how GRT Grasser Racing Team will perform in the Rolex 24, but its prowess at the Roar put them among the GT Daytona powers. And given that last year’s GTD winner was an underdog in Alegra Motorsports, GTD could be primed for another unexpected winner.

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Previous F1 competition doesn’t guarantee IndyCar success at COTA

Manor F1 Photo
Manor F1 Photo
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AUSTIN, Texas – Familiarity does not breed success, according to three NTT IndyCar Series drivers who have previous experience at Circuit of the Americas in the Formula One United States Grand Prix. Several other drivers, including IndyCar Series rookie Patricio O’Ward, competed in the LMPC IMSA race in 2017.

Although the course is the same – 20-turns and 3.41-miles – the cars are completely different. The highly-advanced, technologically-driven Formula One cars are advanced beyond the realm of anything allowed in the NTT IndyCar Series. It’s more about the driver in IndyCar, which uses an impressive, but simpler formula to help showcase driver skill more than technology in its races.

Money buys speed in Formula One, but an IndyCar team doesn’t need a $400 million budget to go racing. It can get by on $5 millions to $10 million a year and contend for plenty of race victories and championships.

Andretti Autosport star Alexander Rossi drove in five Formula One races with Manor in 2015. The above photo is from his only F1 contest at COTA that season. He was the first driver ever to turn laps at COTA shortly after it was constructed in 2012.

Rossi had his best F1 finish in the 2015 United States Grand Prix when he started 17thand finished 12th.

“When I’ve come here in the past, I came into the weekend fully knowing that there was no chance to ever really do anything from a results perspective,” Rossi said. “To could come here to a track that I’ve spent a lot of time at, not necessarily driven a whole lot, but spent a huge amount of time at. To come into this weekend’s race, competing on a level where we have as good a shot as any, to win the race would be pretty cool.

“There’s kind of an almost unfinished business box that we’d like to tick here in some way. I’m very excited to get the weekend started.”

Chilton raced the entire F1 season in 2013 and 2014 with Marussia. He started 21stand finished 21stin 2013. He started in the first 16 races during the 2014 F1 season but was out of a ride by the time F1 arrived at COTA that season.

Me and Alex probably had pretty similar experiences,” Chilton told NBC Sports.com “Obviously the more laps are better — but the car we were in, we weren’t doing much racing, so the sort of racing experience part isn’t going to help.

“It’s good to be back. I first came here in 2013 for the (United States) Grand Prix. I loved the track. I love the city. I really enjoyed the whole facility, the race track. It’s a pretty long track in an Indy car but it’s got lots of overtaking potential for us and hopefully we’ll put on a great show.

“It’s great to have an English band like Muse on Saturday night, as well.”

Marcus Ericsson of Sweden has the most experience at COTA of any driver in the field for Sunday’s INDYCAR Classic. He competed in 97 F1 contests from 2014-2018 before becoming an IndyCar rookie with Arrow Schmidt Peterson Motorsports this season.

Ericsson was 15thin 2015, 14thin 2016, 15thin 2017 and 10thin last year’s USGP.

“I’ve been here quite a few times,” Ericsson said. “It’s one of the best tracks on F1 and I think it’s great we are going here with INDYCAR. It’s going to be a great weekend.

“The racing should be very good. It’s already good on F1 on this track and from what I’ve done in INDYCAR, it’s going to be a really good show from everyone and I’m really looking forward to it.”

Ericsson emphasized that the his F1 experience does not necessarily give him any type of advantage in an IndyCar.

“I think for me I was here a couple months ago in F1 doing the race in ’18. I had all my reference points and then I did the first run and realized that didn’t really work,” Ericsson explained to NBC Sports.com “So I don’t know that the experience — it’s good to know the track, but then the Indy cars are very different cars to the F1 (car) so you have to sort of drive it quite differently and in the end, I think it didn’t really help the maximum amount in my opinion.

“The problem is we had two days of testing already in IndyCar. If we had come here straightaway without any testing it would be an advantage of one hundredth approximate. But now, if you don’t get the track in two days, I don’t think you would be in IndyCar.

“I don’t think it’s a big advantage now going into the weekend.”

But every little bit helps and if all of those little “bits” of information are added up, previous experience can provide a benefit in the race.

“For sure there’s things I can bring from my experience there that helps in INDYCAR, but the Indy car to drive today is different than the Formula One cars with the power steering and everything,” Ericsson continued. “I think it’s two different cars and what I found here on the test; things that worked in the F1 car didn’t really work in the Indy car. I think both cars of very difficult to be fast in but in different ways.

“For sure my experience in F1, it’s helped me to get into INDYCAR.”

James Hinchcliffe, who has never driven in Formula One, or at COTA, believes he has the best experience of any driver in Austin this weekend.

“I know where the restaurants are, so that’s cool,” Hinchcliffe said.