IMSA Preview – Mobil 1 SportsCar Grand Prix

Photo courtesy of IMSA
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The lone back-to-back races of the season for the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship come in early July. Last week’s Sahlen’s Six Hours of The Glen kicked off the back-to-back weekends, and IMSA goes north of the border to complete the two race stretch with this weekend’s Mobil 1 SportsCar Grand Prix from Canadian Tire Motorsport Park.

Prototype, GT Le Mans, and GT Daytona are again in action at CTMP, making this arguably the toughest stretch of the season.

It also marks start of the second half of the season. And with very close championships in all three classes, the back half of the year it set up to be nothing short of dramatic.

Previews of all three classes are below.

Prototype

  • Felipe Albuquerque holds a one point lead over Action Express teammates Eric Curran and Felipe Nasr. Surprisingly, neither entry was a factor at Watkins Glen – Albuquerque, and co-drivers Gabby Chaves and Christian Fittipaldi, finished a quiet sixth in the No. 5 Mustang Sampling Racing Cadillac DPi-V.R, while Curran, Nasr, and Mike Conway ended up seventh in the No. 31 Whelen Engineering Racing Cadillac. It’s the first time all year that neither entry proved to be a factor, but don’t expect that to continue this weekend at CTMP. The No. 31 entry won last year, with Curran and Dane Cameron, and both Action Express Cadillacs should be back at the sharp end of the Prototype field this weekend.
  • The Oreca platform dominated at Watkins Glen. CORE autosport took pole in an Oreca 07 Gibson, Acura Team Penske led most of the race between their Oreca-based Nos. 6 and 7 Acura ARX-05s. And JDC-Miller Motorsports scored an upset victory in their Oreca. It was hardly a surprise to see Penske in contention – they have two poles and a victory already this year – but the strength of the non-DPi Oreca teams took many by surprise. JDC-Miller was also very strong at CTMP last year, so another strong showing could be in the cards for them. Regardless, if the Oreca platform, and the other LMP2 chassis, again show their prowess this weekend, it could prove to be a big disruption to the championship picture.
  • Speaking of the title picture, Dane Cameron and Juan Pablo Montoya (Penske No. 6 Acura) and Jordan Taylor and Renger Van Der Zande (Wayne Taylor Racing No. 10 Cadillac) sit 13 points behind Albuquerque. Montoya and Cameron appear to be picking up steam with every race – they battled for the win at Watkins Glen before finishing third – and Taylor and Van Der Zande continue to hang around despite going winless so far in 2018. Both entries could use a victory, which be the first of the year for either one, and doing so would put them squarely into the title picture.
  • Ricky Taylor and Helio Castroneves showed a lot of speed at The Glen, leading much of the early portion, before mechanical gremlins dropped them several laps off the lead. Mechanical issues have been their achilles heel this year, but if those gremlins don’t surface, this is an entry that could easily end up in the winner’s circle…and it already has once this year (at Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course).
  • Tequila Patron ESM looks to rebound after a miserable outing at The Glen. The No. 2 Nissan Onroak DPi was collected in an opening lap crash, and retired after eight laps of running due to engine overheating as a result of damage sustained in that crash. The sister No. 22 Nissan then fell out after 32 laps, also due to mechanical issues. They have everything they need to contend for wins, but need Lady Luck to smile on them if they are to do so at CTMP.
  • Of note: Joao Barbosa is slated to return to Action Express’ No. 5 machine after missing Watkins Glen due to a wrist injury sustained in a cycling accident.

GT Le Mans (GTLM)

  • Dirk Mueller and Joey Hand, GTLM victors at Watkins Glen, now lead the GTLM standings ahead of teammates Ryan Briscoe and Richard Westbrook, but only by one point. Both entries now have wins this year, and the Ford GT appears to be the strongest GTLM machine this year. Expect both the Nos. 66 and 67 to again be favored this weekend.
  • While Ford leads the way, Corvette Racing isn’t to be forgotten. Antonio Garcia and Jan Magnussen are third in the championship, only four points out of the lead. Like the Wayne Taylor squad in the Prototype ranks, Garcia and Magnussen, (in the No. 3 Corvette C7.R) are hanging around despite not having a win – teammates Oliver Gavin and Tommy Milner have Corvette’s only win so far in 2018 (they sit sixth in the championship at the moment). Ford may appear to have a pace advantage, and the Corvette is certainly the oldest of the current GTLM marques, but one should overlook the Corvette squad at their own risk.
  • Porsche GT Team is also still in the mix, with Laurens Vanthoor and Earl Bamber sitting fourth, five points out of the lead, in their No. 912 Porsche 911 RSR – teammates Nick Tandy and Patrick Pilet sit sixth in the No. 911. Both entries have wins this year, and the Porsche does seem to get better with each race. They could easily factor in the battle for the win at Canadian Tire Motorsport Park.
  • BMW Team RLL continues to grow with their brand new BMW M8 GTEs. They sit seventh (Alexander Sims and Connor De Phillippi in the No. 24) and eighth (Jesse Krohn and John Edwards in the No. 25) in the GTLM standings. It may be a little too much to expect them to contend for a win, but Sims and De Phillippi do have two podiums in 2018 and Sims is the defending GTLM winner, with BMW, so they could produce a surprise this weekend.

GT Daytona (GTD)

  • GTD presents maybe the most intriguing championship battle in IMSA at the moment, as one point separates title combatants Paul Miller Racing and Meyer Shank Racing. Madison Snow and Bryan Sellers have the Paul Miller No. 48 Lamborghini Huracan GT3 one point ahead of Katherine Legge, who co-drivers the No. 86 MSR Acura NSX GT3 with Alvaro Parente. The No. 86 MSR Acura will be in action at CTMP, but is still not confirmed for the rest of 2018. There are no guarantees but Legge leaving CTMP as the GTD championship leader would make it even more difficult than it is now to sideline the entry for the rest of the year. Regardless, these two have battled at the front in each of the last two races (they finished first and third in Detroit, with the No. 86 winning out, and second and third at The Glen), so they’ll undoubtedly do battle again in Canada.
  • Behind them, the battle for third pits Ben Keating and Jeroen Bleekemolen (No. 33 Mercedes-AMG Team Riley Motorsports Mercedes AMG GT3), Cooper MacNeil (No. 63 Scuderia Corsa Ferrari 488 GT3, co-driving with Jeff Segal this weekend), and Jack Hawksworth and David Heinemeier Hansson (No. 15 3GT Racing Lexus RCF GT3) against each other. The three entries are separated by 11 points entering CTMP.
  • Five different teams have won in GTD this year, making it the most unpredictable class in the WeatherTech Championship. With teams like Wright Motorsports, Scuderia Corsa, and Magnus Racing still looking for their first wins of the season, that number could easily grow to six this weekend.

A full entry list can be seen here, and the weekend schedule can be viewed here.

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The Thermal Club wants an IndyCar race, and series executives liked its initial impact at test

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THERMAL, Calif. – Many teams in the NTT IndyCar Series questioned the relevancy of having a two-day preseason test at The Thermal Club.

The team owners, drivers and engineers believed the 17-turn, 3.067-mile race course that winds and twists its way through a gated private community (about 45 minutes southeast of Palm Springs) had no relevance to any track on the 17-race schedule.

To the leaders of IndyCar, however, there was plenty of relevance to hosting its “Spring Training” at a sort of motorsports country club that caters to extremely wealthy residents who also are automotive enthusiasts.

“Both with our stakeholders and the media that covers IndyCar, we wanted them to know that we are going to do things differently,” Penske Entertainment CEO Mark Miles told NBC Sports from the private VIP viewing area that overlooks the long straights and twisting turns of the course. “This is going to be a year when we expect our growth to go to a whole new level.

“What better way to send that message than to be at a place we have never been that is exceptional?

“The quality of this place; the facilities are off the charts. The customer service, the welcoming feeling you get from the staff here. The track itself is fast. The drivers are having a great time on it.

FRIDAY SPEEDSThird session l Fourth session l Combined

‘AN AMAZING PLACE’: IndyCar and its big plans for Thermal

“It really sent a message to our other promoters and our drivers and team owners that something is up. We want fans around the country and the sports industry to know that something is going on with IndyCar this year.”

The Thermal Club is a concept driven by Tim Rogers, who made his fortune by supplying gasoline to 7-Eleven stores in 36 states. He wanted to create a private community that mixed multimillion-dollar homes and luxury villas with a high-speed race course.

The two-day IndyCar “Spring Training” was the most ambitious motorsports project yet for The Thermal Club.

Rogers wants it to be the first step in a long-term goal for the community.

“Our endgame is we want to host an IndyCar Series race at The Thermal Club one day,” Rogers told NBC Sports as IndyCar hit the track again Friday morning. “This was a good trial to see how the facility can handle it and if the facility works for them.”

Felix Rosenqvist makes laps in the No. 6 Arrow McLaren Dallara-Chevrolet during the first day of NTT IndyCar Series testing (Andy Abeyta/The Desert Sun / USA TODAY Sports Images).

The two-day test was closed to the general public. It was open only to credentialed news media, members of the Thermal Club and a limited number of their guests.

With the spectacular backdrop of the Coachella Valley that is rimmed with snow-capped mountains, The Thermal Club could provide a great setting for an NBC telecast of an IndyCar Series race (and possibly line up a big sponsor for a return on its investment with a larger than normal audience during a ripe time such as the first weekend of February).

NASCAR is using that same model Sunday at the Los Angeles Coliseum by hosting the Busch Light Clash. The National Football League’s AFC and NFC Championship games were last weekend and next Sunday is the Super Bowl.

“That could work, but we have room where we could separate the public and the private members area, too,” Rogers said. “We could accommodate 4,000 or so of the general public.

“This would be a premium event for a premium crowd.”


Rogers’ dream of The Thermal Club began 11 years ago. He will talk to IndyCar about a return for Spring Training next year with hopes of getting a date on the schedule for 2025.

“Whatever fits,” Rogers said.

Miles and Penske Entertainment, the owners of IndyCar, Indianapolis Motor Speedway, and the Indianapolis 500, realize Rogers has an ambitious dream of getting a race on the schedule.

Miles, however, isn’t ready to indicate that a race at Thermal is part of IndyCar’s future (though drivers seem open to the concept).

“Tim and everybody at The Thermal Club have done a phenomenal job of being hosts here for this test,” Miles said. “Everybody is very happy we are here, and I expect we will find a way to continue to be here. Whether that means a race and when is really a bridge we aren’t ready to cross yet.

“We really like opening the championship season each year in St. Petersburg, Florida. We’ll have to see. But it’s a great way to start the season in this way, and right now, we are happy to be here.”

Indycar Series Test - Day 1
Defending IndyCar champion Will Power takes laps at The Thermal Club during the first day of the track’s first test (Matthew Ashton – AMA/Getty Images).

On track, it was a successful two-day test session with 27 car/driver combinations that will compete in IndyCar in 2023. It’s the largest field for IndyCar since the 1990s. There were a few spins here and there but no major incidents across 2,560 laps.

Kyle Kirkwood led the final session Friday while getting acquainted with his new No. 27 team at Andretti Autosport. Kirkwood has replaced Alexander Rossi at Andretti, whom Kirkwood drove for in Indy Lights.

His time of 1 minute, 38.827 seconds (111.721 mph) around the 3.067-mile road course was the fastest of the fourth and final session. But the fastest speed over two days was defending Indy 500 winner Marcus Ericsson of Chip Ganassi Racing in the Friday morning session (1:38.4228, 112.182 mph in the No. 8 Honda).

Callum Ilott of Juncos Hollinger Racing was second in the final session at 1:38.8404 (111.707 mph) in the No. 77 Chevrolet. Rookie Marcus Armstrong of New Zealand was third at 1:38.8049 (111.707 mph) in the No. 11 Honda for Chip Ganassi Racing. Alex Palou of Chip Ganassi Racing was fourth at 1:38.8718 (111.672 mph) in the No. 10. Defending NTT IndyCar Series champion Will Power of Team Penske rounded out the top five at 1:38.9341 (111.602 mph) in the No. 12 Chevrolet.

Ericsson was the fastest in combined times followed by Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing’s Christian Lundgaard at 1:38.5682 in the No. 45 Honda, Kirkwood, Ilott and Armstrong. Positions 3-5 speeds were from the final practice session on Friday.

Indycar Series Test - Day 1
With members’ houses in the background, Romain Grosjean navigates the turns of The Thermal Club in his No. 28 Dallara-Honda (Matthew Ashton – AMA/Getty Images).

Drivers didn’t know what to expect before hitting the track. After the two-day test was over, NBC Sports asked several drivers what they learned from The Thermal Club.

“I think it’s a first-class facility, no doubt,” two-time NTT IndyCar Series champion Josef Newgarden of Team Penske said. “I think the entire facility here at Thermal really rolled out the red carpet for us. They did a tremendous job.

“It was a fairly flawless test, I would say, for two days. I think the great thing about this was we had a two-day test, which was fantastic. You got to have this warmup; this preseason build. That was the biggest positive for me, is that we were here, we were running cars. It was a great facility to do it at.

IndyCar Thermal Club test
Josef Newgarden said his No. 2 team (which has a new lead engineer) used The Thermal Club test as an opportunity for building cohesion (Matthew Ashton – AMA/Getty Images).
Indycar Series Test - Day 2
Josef Newgarden (Matthew Ashton – AMA/Getty Images).

“I think the track was a lot more fun than we anticipated. It was challenging, definitely technical. I don’t know how relevant it is. For us, it wasn’t really relevant to anywhere we’re going, but that’s OK.”

But even though the track has no sector particularly similar to any road or street course on the schedule, there still were benefits.

“In a lot of ways, it is relevant,” Newgarden said. “For us it was relevant for building the team up, trying to work in a competitive environment, be competitive together. That’s everything. So regardless of is the setup going to apply to a certain track or another, (it) doesn’t really matter.

“For us, it was applying the principles of how we’re going to work together. From that standpoint, it was very productive for everybody. Raceability-wise, it’s hard to say. It was chewing tires up. Big drop-off from run one to two. I think from a race standpoint, that would be quite positive. You’d have big tire deg here.

“You’d have to do more work on runoff areas if we wanted to race here, but it’s possible. I don’t think it would take much effort to do the things to run an actual race.”


Indycar Series Test - Day 1
Will Power (Matthew Ashton – AMA/Getty Images)

Kirkwood found speed in his Andretti Autosport machine, but he used the test to create a smooth working relationship with his new crew.

“I wouldn’t say that we found something here that is going to translate to anywhere, right?” the 2021 Indy Lights champion said. “This is a very unique track, although it was a lot of fun to drive, and it kind of surprised me in the amount of grip that it actually produced.

“It was quite a bit faster than what we expected.”

Many of the NTT IndyCar Series teams will test later this month at Sebring, Florida, as they prepare for the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg to kick off the season March 5.

“It’s a very nice facility, a nice area, it’s pretty cool to have two days of testing here with a lot of high-profile people,” two-time NTT IndyCar Series champion Will Power of Team Penske told NBC Sports. “It’s a very technical, tough track.

“It’s pretty good.”

Indycar Series Test - Day 2
IndyCar drivers turns laps on the second day of testing at The Thermal Club, which is nestled in the Coachella Valley that is ringed by mountains in Southern California (Matthew Ashton – AMA/Getty Images).

The Thermal Club received rave reviews, welcomed IndyCar and provided exposure to the movers and shakers of the business community that own the luxury villas and homes in this ultra-rich community.

Could it be a venue of the future for a series that sells lifestyle as much as on-track competition?

“This is a fantastic facility and the circuit is a fast circuit,” team owner Bobby Rahal told NBC Sports. “It’s pretty exciting to watch the cars run around here. I think it would be attractive to people.

“I’ll leave that up to Mark Miles and (IndyCar President) Jay Frye and everybody else whether we have a race here, but why not?

“It’s a great place.”

Follow Bruce Martin on Twitter at @BruceMartin_500