Photo courtesy of IMSA

IMSA: Rolex 24 Team Preview – Prototype

Leave a comment

MotorSportsTalk’s Kyle Lavigne offers a team preview of entries for this weekend’s 2018 Rolex 24 at Daytona, beginning with the Prototype class.

The Prototype field sees an increase of 12 entries in 2017 to 20 in 2018, a strong increase that features an influx of teams from the since dissolved Prototype Challenge class as well as multiple entries from LMP2 teams in the FIA World Endurance Championship.

Below is a breakdown of the teams entered in the Prototype class:

Tequila Patron ESM
Car: Nissan Onroak DPi
No. 2 (Scott Sharp, Ryan Dalziel, Olivier Pla)
No. 22 (Johannes van Overbeek, Pipo Derani, Nicolas Lapierre)

Outlook: Tequila Patron ESM came on strong in the second half of 2017, winning twice in the second half of the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship. The No. 22 entry won at Road America, while the No. 2 won the season-ending Motul Petit Le Mans.

Sharp, van Overbeek, and Derani helped this team win the Rolex 24 in 2016 as a single-car entrant. With stout driver lineups behind both entries in 2018, it would surprise no one if either of the ESM cars ended up in Victory Lane on Sunday afternoon.

Action Express Racing
Car: Cadillac DPi-V.R
No. 5 Mustang Sampling Racing (Joao Barbosa, Filipe Albuquerque, Christian Fittipaldi)
No. 31 Whelen Engineering Racing (Felipe Nasr, Eric Curran, Mike Conway, Stuart Middleton)

Outlook: This team went fastest at the Roar Before the 24 in early January, serving notice that they might be the favorites heading into the Rolex 24. The No. 31 entry ultimately had the fastest overall lap – with Felipe Nasr behind the wheel – while the No. 5 ended up third overall that weekend, with Albuquerque going fastest in that entry.

They’ll be looking to avenge a 2017 Rolex which slipped through their hands. The No. 31 was a front-runner before mechanical problems dropped it from the lead battle, while the No. 5, again in the hands of Albuquerque, lost out to Wayne Taylor Racing’s Ricky Taylor in the final laps, with Albuquerque spinning after contact with Taylor in Turn 1.

Rest assured, both entries will have fire in their bellies and plenty of speed in hand, meaning they’ll likely be heavy-hitters throughout the event.

Acura Team Penske
Car: Acura ARX-05 (DPi)
No. 6 (Dane Cameron, Juan Pablo Montoya, Simon Pagenaud)
No. 7 (Helio Castroneves, Ricky Taylor, Graham Rahal)

Outlook: Perhaps the highest-profile entrant in this year’s Rolex 24, Team Penske and Acura enter their first event together amidst much fanfare and anticipation. Castroneves, Montoya, and Pagenaud competed in Penske’s return to IMSA competition at last October’s Petit Le Mans, qualifying on pole and recovering from an early spin to finish third.

Their strong showing that weekend was an immediate sign that Penske will be a major player from the get-go in its IMSA return. The ARX-05 grew steadily quicker during the three days of testing at the Roar Before the 24 – both entries ranked in the top ten in overall fastest laps at the end of the weekend – so their tools are most certainly sharp entering the 24-hour endurance test.

Winning in their first event together is a daunting task, but if there’s a team that could do it, Acura Team Penske might just be the one.

Wayne Taylor Racing
Car: Cadillac DPi-V.R
No. 10 (Jordan Taylor, Renger Van Der Zande, Ryan Hunter-Reay)

Outlook: Despite being a one-car effort in a sea of two-car efforts, Wayne Taylor Racing remains one of, if not the strongest team on the IMSA grid. Defending champions of this race, and defending Prototype champions as well, they’ll be looking to continue what was a dominant 2017 campaign, one in which they won the first five events of the year, beginning with an emotional triumph at the Rolex 24.

Although Ricky Taylor left for Team Penske, Renger Van Der Zende is more than capable of filling those shoes – his late-race pass on then Action Express driver Dane Cameron for the win at Laguna Seca was a thing of beauty – and former Indy 500 winner and Verizon IndyCar Series champion Ryan Hunter-Reay completes one of the strongest driver lineups in the field.

A team has not won back-to-back Rolex 24 trophies since 2007 and 2008 with Chip Ganassi Racing, but Wayne Taylor Racing has all the potential to do so.

United Autosports
Car: Ligier JS P217 Gibson
No. 23 (Phil Hanson, Lando Norris, Fernando Alonso)
No. 32 (Will Owen, Hugo de Sadeleer, Paul Di Resta, Bruno Senna)

Outlook: Of all the drivers entered in this year’s Rolex, Fernando Alonso might be the highest-profile, especially internationally. However, while his presence may overshadow that of his team – United Autosports – they should not be overlooked. Second-place finishers in the LMP2 class of the 2017 European Le Mans Series season, and champions of the LMP3 class, United Autosports has quickly developed a championship pedigree.

Alongside Alonso, Phil Hanson and Lando Norris represent a pair of talented youngsters, while Will Owen and Hugo de Sadeleer helped lead the team to second in the aforementioned LMP2 category of the 2017 ELMS season. Add Paul Di Resta and Bruno Senna to the mix, and you have a solid driver lineup all-around.

Winning will be a tall order as the team makes its IMSA debut, and they ranked in the middle of the Prototype pack during the Roar test. But, they’re not worth counting out, and if nothing else, Alonso’s presence will serve as one of the biggest storylines of the weekend.

Jackie Chan DCR JOTA
Car: Oreca 07 Gibson
No. 37 (Lance Stroll, Felix Rosenqvist, Daniel Juncadella, Robin Frijns)
No. 78 (Ho-Pin Tung, Alex Brundle, Antonio Felix da Costa, Ferdinand Habsburg-Lothringen)

Outlook: Though a bit of an unknown quantity in the U.S., Jackie Chan DCR JOTA is something of a power in the World Endurance Championship, with a 2017 LMP2 class victory at the 24 Hours Le Mans – one that was nearly an overall victory as well – this is a team that is battle tested and a proven winner on the biggest stages racing has to offer.

Lance Stroll represents the “other” full-time Formula 1 driver on the grid. His name might be the only one American race fans recognize, but with Felix Rosenqvist, Alex Brundle, and Antonio Felix da Costa highlighting potent driver lineups across both entries, a victory from either the No. 37 or the No. 78 is not far-fetched.

Mazda Team Joest
Car: Mazda RT24-P (DPi)
No. 55 (Jonathan Bomarito, Spencer Pigot, Harry Tincknell)
No. 77 (Oliver Jarvis, Tristan Nunez, Rene Rast)

Outlook: Completely revamped in 2018, Mazda’s IMSA effort represents a fresh start of sorts for them. And with Joest Racing now operating the Mazda prototypes, this fresh start has a powerhouse behind it.

Joest Racing’s recent fame came from operating the all-conquering Audi LMP1 program. Since 2000, the team scored 11 victories at the 24 Hours of Le Mans, and its operation became synonymous with success and set the gold standard in sports car racing, especially in the Prototype division.

They bring with them a retooled driver lineup the features former Audi pilot Oliver Jarvis and two-time Le Mans LMP2 class winner Harry Tincknell alongside incumbents Jonatham Bomarito and Tristan Nunez. IndyCar standout Spencer Pigot and 2017 DTM champion Rene Rast fill out a very strong and possibly underrated driver lineup.

The Roar Before the 24 proved difficult for them –  a delay in a parts arrival saw them do limited running on Day 1, with the No. 77 only running two laps that day – but both entries represent strong darkhorses.

JDC-Miller Motorsports
Car: Oreca 07 Gibson
No. 85 (Simon Trummer, Robert Alon, Austin Cindric, Devlin DeFrancesco)
No. 99 (Chris Miller, Stephen Simpson, Misha Goikhberg, Gustavo Menezes)

Outlook: Last year’s underdogs of IMSA expand to a two-car program in 2018. The artist formerly known as “The Banana Boat” – last year’s No. 85 –  is re-numbered and re-liveried as the No. 99 Gainsco Auto Insurance “Red Dragon,” with a new No. 85 “Banana Boat” seeing its birth over the winter.

JDC-Miller failed to win a race in 2017, but came tantalizingly close on multiple occasions and became a fan favorite as the “plucky underdog” that challenged the big-name DPi programs.

Now fully entrenched as IMSA contenders, they have a chance to steal the series’ biggest race, and don’t be surprised if either the No. 85 or No. 99 ends up battling for the lead and the win.

Spirit of Daytona Racing
Car: Cadillac DPi-V.R
No. 90 (Matt McMurry
, Tristan Vautier, Eddie Cheever III)

Outlook: The fourth Cadillac in the Prototype field belongs to the rebranded – back to its original name in fact – Spirit of Daytona Racing, which contested the 2017 season as Visit Florida Racing. A difficult 2017 campaign saw the team struggle mightily early on with a Multimatic/Riley Mk. 30 Gibson, and they even used two different chassis after a wreck at Long Beach saw them write one off.

A switch to a Ligier chassis late in the year sparked a renaissance for the program, with Renger Van Der Zende and Marc Goossens taking a win at Laguna Seca Raceway.

A new driver lineup features Matt McMurry and Tristan Vautier as its full-time drivers, with Eddie Cheever III joining for the Rolex 24, and the team also has in its hands perhaps the strongest car on the grid in the Cadillac.

Still, they maintain a bit of an underdog vibe. But don’t let that fool you. This group was second fastest at the Roar during final day qualifying, giving them a nice pick of pit stall and garage, and they have all the potential to battle, and beat, the heavy hitters.

The remaining entries of the Prototype class are below.

AFS/PR1 Mathiasen Motorsports
Car: Ligier JS P217 Gibson
No. 52
(Sebastian Saavedra, Gustavo Yacaman, Roberto Gonzalez, Nicholas Boulle)

BAR1 Motorsports
Car: Multimatic/Riley Mk. 30 Gibson
No. 20 (Eric Lux, Marc Drumwright, Alex Popow, Tomy Drissi, Brendan Gaughan)

Performance Tech Motorsports
Car: Oreca 07 Gibson
No. 38 (James French, Kyle Masson, Pato O’Ward, Joel Miller)

CORE autosport
Car: Oreca 07 Gibson
No. 54 (Jon Bennett, Colin Braun, Romain Dumas, Loic Duval)

Outlook: The above four teams fill out the Prototype grid and represent the genuine underdogs of the class. Possibly overlooked given the storylines of the previous entries, this group may not be on the radar as pre-race favorites.

But, overlook them at your own peril. CORE’s driver lineup, highlighted by former Le Mans winners Romain Dumas and Loic Duval, is as strong as anyone’s, and the Oreca chassis is more than capable of running up front.

AFS/PRI Mathiasen doesn’t have as much clout in its lineup, and their program is revamped from last year with a new partnership in AFS Racing, but they could easily make a surprise run to the front.

BAR1 and Performance Tech move up from the now defunct Prototype Challenge class, Performance Tech being that class’ champion last year. But, like the other aforementioned teams, they’re more than capable of offering a surprise.

Follow@KyleMLavigne

 

MRTI: Toronto digest

Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography
Leave a comment

Last year’s visit to the streets of Toronto for the Mazda Road to Indy Presented by Cooper Tires proved to be a pivotal point in the championship chase that year.

Kyle Kaiser swept both races in the Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires, and doing so gave him firm control over the championship, and he all but clinched it ahead of the season finale at Watkins Glen – Kaiser needed to only start that event to wrap up the title.

And in the Cooper Tires USF2000 Championship Powered by Mazda, while Parker Thompson swept the weekend, Oliver Askew was caught up in a crash in Race 2. Combine that with a second place finish from 2017 title rival Rinus VeeKay – VeeKay also finished third in Race 1 – and it kept the championship within reach of VeeKay, who took it all the way to the finale at The Glen.

The 2018 visit north of the border will likely be remembered for a similar impact on the MRTI championships, both in Indy Lights and USF2000 and, maybe most significantly, in the Pro Mazda Championship Presented by Cooper Tires.

A look at big stories to emerge from a wild weekend on the streets of Toronto is below.

Indy Lights

Santi Urrutia scored a much needed win in Race 2 on the streets of Toronto. Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography
  • Santi Urrutia’s championship hopes were teetering entering the weekend – he was 49 points out of the lead and had been vastly overshadowed by title combatants Pato O’Ward and Colton Herta for most of the season. But, his Race 2 victory combined with a second place in Race 1 to close him to within 40 points of O’Ward for the championship lead. He’s still a bit of a long shot, but his chances look much brighter leaving Toronto than they did entering.
  • More significantly, Colton Herta’s title hopes may have taken an enormous hit. After crashing in Race 1 qualifying, just after grabbing the pole as well, Herta suffered a thumb fracture that he aggravated again after crashing during Race 1. It forced the team to recommend Herta essentially sit out Race 2 – he pulled off after running only a couple laps and finished sixth – and he dropped to 18 points behind O’Ward, who won Race 1 and finished second in Race 2. The margin is hardly a commanding one for O’Ward, but with the next stop at the ultra-physical Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course, Herta’s injured hand could remain a factor in the coming races and allow O’Ward to widen the margin.
  • One can’t help but feel bad for Victor Franzoni. Coming off the high of winning his first Indy Lights Race at Road America, Franzoni’s season took a turn for the worse. He crashed in Race 1 and then pulled off in Race 2 in order to conserve finances and resources – Franzoni detailed afterward that the budget is tight for him this year and crash damage from Race 1 does him no good. It would be a genuine shame if Franzoni’s season was derailed by funding issues, as the likeable Brazilian has made great progress all year and has the potential to make it as a Verizon IndyCar Series driver. He just needs the backing to get there.

Pro Mazda

Rinus VeeKay now trails Parker Thompson by only seven points in the Pro Mazda championship. Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography
  • No Mazda Road to Indy Championship was shaken up as much as Pro Mazda. Parker Thompson entered the weekend with a sizeable lead of 46 points over Rinus VeeKay. He exits the weekend only seven points ahead after finishes of eighth in both races – he was involved in a crash in Race 1 and made an unscheduled pit stop after thinking he suffered suspension damage in Race 2. Meanwhile, VeeKay dominated the weekend, winning from the pole in both races. It all means that what was once looking like a possible runaway has been all but reset. And we might see a genuine duel between them all the way to the season finale at Portland International Raceway.
  • There are few words to describe the relief everyone felt in seeing Harrison Scott walk away unhurt after his frightening airborne crash in Race 1. This was the first major crash test in a race for the Tatuus PM-18, and it aced it. And big kudos should also be given to the AMR Safety Team, who were already tending to Scott barely a few seconds after his car had come to a rest. Scott did start Race 2, but pulled off with a mechanical problem…which seems minor in comparison to what could have happened in Race 1.
  • Oliver Askew had his best race of the year in Race 2, finishing second to VeeKay for his second podium of the season. It’s been a tough year for Askew and Cape Motorsports after winning last year’s USF2000 title, and getting a podium under their belt could be just what they needed heading into the season’s stretch run.

USF2000

Kyle Kirkwood continued his USF2000 dominance on the streets of Toronto. Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography
  • After another weekend sweep, Kyle Kirkwood has one hand on the USF2000 championship. He leads Kaylen Frederick by a staggering 131 points – that’s over four road course races worth of points. He may well leave Mid-Ohio as the USF2000 champion. And even if he doesn’t, it would take something unheard of to keep the championship from his grasp.
  • Kaylen Frederick sits second, only three points up on Igor Fraga. Fraga had his best race since Race 2 on the streets of St. Petersburg, when he finished second, and he nearly outdueled Kirkwood for the win in Race 2. Both he and Frederick have caught fire of late, and their battle for second is very evenly matched.
  • Don’t count out Rasmus Lindh in the battle for second in the championship either. The Swedish driver is seven points behind Frederick and scored his third podium of the year by finishing third in Race 2 at Toronto. Second is well within his reach.

The Mazda Road to Indy is off this weekend before heading to Mid-Ohio, where Indy Lights and USF2000 again have double headers, while Pro Mazda will enjoy a triple header.

Follow@KyleMLavigne