IMSA Preview: Northeast Grand Prix

IMSA
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The IMSA WeatherTech Sports Car Championships sees the first of two GT-only showcase events this weekend with the Northeast Grand Prix at Lime Rock Park.

With the Prototype class, the usual headliner, not on the docket, GT Le Mans (GTLM) and GT Daytona (GTD) get to headline an event and vie for overall victory honors.

Last year saw Porsche sweep both classes, with Patrick Pilet and Dirk Werner leading a Porsche GT Team 1-2 in GTLM, while Patrick Lindsey and Joerg Bergmeister claimed GTD honors, and the German marque will be keen to mimic that result in 2018.

Previews for both GTLM and GTD are below.

GTLM

  • Ryan Briscoe and Richard Westbrook continue to show the way it GTLM in their No. 67 Ford GT for Ford Chip Ganassi Racing, but only lead the Corvette Racing duo of Jan Magnussen and Antonio Garcia by a scant five points. Still, Briscoe and Westbrook are riding a wave of momentum after taking their second win of the 2018 season at Canadian Tire Motorsport Park. The Ford GT is possibly the fastest of the GTLM platforms, giving them an inherent advantage. But, a continuation of their success is far from a guarantee. They might be favored entering the weekend, but don’t be surprised if they face multiple challengers.
  • Magnussen and Garcia rank second in their No. 3 Corvette C7.R, while Joey Hand and Dirk Mueller sit third in their No. 66 Ford GT, trailing teammates Briscoe and Westbrook by eight points. Tommy Milner and Oliver Gavin rank fourth, 14 points out of the lead, in the No. 4 Corvette. Such a tight margin means the GTLM title is still completely up for grabs. What’s even more surprising is that Magnussen and Garcia rank second in the GTLM standings despite not having a win in 2018. They’ll be motivated to break that winless streak, while all three of these entries are poised to mount title challenges, beginning with Lime Rock.
  • Porsche sits fifth and sixth with its entries – Earl Bamber and Laurens Vanthoor are fifth in the No. 912 Porsche 911 RSR, while Nick Tandy and Pilet sit sixth in the No. 911. Pilet is a defending Lime Rock winner, and he won the Mobil 1 12 Hours of Sebring with Tandy, while Bamber and Vanthoor won at the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course. Porsche clearly goes well at Lime Rock, so this weekend presents them with a golden opportunity to vault themselves squarely into the title picture.
  • BMW Team RLL still sit seventh and eighth with their BMW M8 GTEs – Alexander Sims and Connor de Phillippi sit seventh in the No. 25 while John Edwards and Jesse Krohn sit eighth in the No. 24. They continue to develop the new M8, and their best result is still a second place effort in Sebring with Sims, de Phillippi and Bill Auberlen. A podium is possible again this weekend as they continue to improve the M8 platform.

GTD

  • The GTD class is set for a genuine championship fight for the rest of the season after Meyer Shank Racing confirmed that their No. 86 Acura NSX GT3, with co-drivers Katherine Legge and Alvaro Parente, will see out the rest of the 2018 IMSA season (details can be found on the team’s website). Legge has been hot on the heels of points leaders Bryan Sellers and Madison Snow, in the No. 48 Paul Miller Racing Lamborghini Huracan GT3, for most of the summer and trails them by only three points entering Lime Rock. Legge finished fifth at Lime Rock last year, alongside then co-driver Andy Lally, while Sellers and Snow finished second behind Lindsey and Boergmeister. The MSR squad will need to improve on their Lime Rock outing this time around to regain the points lead, while Sellers, Snow, and the Paul Miller squad will aim for one position higher on the podium. Regardless, the two teams look destined to fight it out all the way to the end.
  • Somewhat alone in third is the Mercedes-AMG Team Riley Motorsports duo of Ben Keating and Jeroen Bleekemolen. They sit 14 points back in third, but are coming off a win at Canadian Tire Motorsport Park. A second consecutive win would make the GTD title chase a three-team duel, and Keating, Bleekemolen, and the Riley-Mercedes group are quite capable of doing so.
  • Given the success of Porsche last year, one might think that Wright Motorsports is a team to watch this weekend. And they certainly are in desperate need of a strong result. Christina Nielsen and Patrick Long have a best finish of sixth at Sebring in their No. 58 Porsche 911 GT3, and teammates Michael Schein and Wolf Henzler have a best finish of ninth at Detroit. It’s been a rough year for a team that expected to battle for a GTD crown, and a podium would be great medicine.
  • Magnus Racing (Andy Lally and John Potter) and Scuderia Corsa (Cooper MacNeil and Jeff Segal) high the GTD teams looking for their first wins of 2018 at Lime Rock.

A weekend schedule can be viewed here. Both qualifying and the 2 hour 40 minute race will be held on Saturday July 21.

Follow@KyleMLavigne

 

Tom Blomqvist keeps eye on IndyCar during impressive rise: ‘ I would love to give it a go’

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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – In between two of his latest superstar-driver-in-waiting performances, Tom Blomqvist walked through the Daytona International Speedway garage in anonymity.

“Nobody knows who the (expletive) I am,” he said to a team member with a laugh (and without a trace of being miffed), evincing the cheeky humor of someone born in England, raised in New Zealand and also of Swedish descent.

The lack of recognition in the garage might have been because he was clad in a relatively nondescript shirt, hat and sunglasses instead of a colorful firesuit covered by sponsor logos. But he also was on the way to a Friday race eve media availability where his entrance was greeted by only one reporter (after a few minutes).

During a news conference a day earlier, he sat patiently on the dais while his Indy 500-winning teammates and car owner fielded nearly all the questions – even though Blomqvist had turned maybe the most impressive lap of the month to win the Rolex 24 at Daytona pole position in the debut of the Grand Touring Prototype category.

The Meyer Shank Racing driver still might lack the attention commensurate with his already world-class CV (which expanded Sunday with his second consecutive Rolex 24  victory for MSR), but Blomqvist, 29, clearly isn’t bothered by it.

He carries the quiet confidence of knowing his immense talent will ensure results that will make him impossible to ignore.

“To a degree, I guess, it’s definitely ramped up a lot for me,” Blomqvist told NBC Sports. “In America, I’m starting to get a lot more (attention). In the last year, I’ve quite often got a lot of maybe what you’d call the glory moments. It’s been fun. And within the paddock, there’s a lot of respect for me anyway. It’s been good.”

There have been several moments of acclaim since he joined MSR barely a year ago in the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship. In his first start for the team at last year’s Rolex 24, Blomqvist turned in a Herculean performance to position the No. 60 Acura for the victory (giving way to Helio Castroneves because he was too “cooked” to complete the last 74 minutes).

He was even better this year at Daytona.

He ripped off a monster “one and done” pole-winning lap to beat the clock in qualifying on the 12-turn, 3.56-mile road course. During the race, Blomqvist was as dominant in his first stint as his last in the ARX-06 while taking the checkered flag. He set the mark for the fastest time on Lap 6 that no one topped over the final 755 laps.

The 10 fastest laps in the race belonged to Blomqvist, carrying over his speed from the 2022 when he won the Petit Le Mans season finale to clinch the premier prototype championship at Michelin Road Atlanta.

A year earlier at the same track, he had burst onto the radar of car owner Mike Shank, who was intrigued by Blomqvist’s results as a BMW factory driver in the Formula E and DTM series. In 2014, Blomqvist also finished between second in F3, between champion Esteban Ocon (now with Alpine’s F1 team) and Max Verstappen (who has won the past two Formula One championships).

“He did a lot of high-level stuff, and then kind of fell out of favor, or I don’t know what happened, but he was a free agent,” Shank said. “I started looking at his numbers, and I’m like, ‘We should test this guy. So I take him to Road Atlanta in the fall of ’21, and he got in the car and just slayed it.”

Within minutes, he had called co-owner Jim Meyer.

“I’ve got our guy,” Shank said. “This is our guy. There’s no question about it.

Honda Performance Development president David Salters hugs Tom Blomqvist after the Rolex 24 at Daytona pole (Mike Levitt/LAT/IMSA).

“Now what’s happened, though, and I think if you look back at the Rolex here last year (and) what he did, he’s a gold nugget. He reminds me a little bit when (Robert) Wickens came into IndyCar out of DTM (as a rookie in 2018).

“He truly believes he’s the fastest guy out there, and he proved it (at the Rolex 24).”

Said David Salters, president for Honda Performance Development: “We love Tom. He’s the real deal, isn’t he? Immensely talented, super smart, and on it.

The great thing about our teams, the strength in depth is tremendous. But if you look through the sports car racing now, that’s the standard you have to have. Tom, brilliant, Filipe (Albuquerque), brilliant. Ricky (Taylor). You can go through that list. They’re all superstars. Tom is awesome. His lap in qualifying quite frankly was unbelievable.”


Having conquered one of the world’s greatest endurance races twice with Acura, Blomqvist could be ticketed for the world’s biggest race next – the Indy 500 — with HPD’s primary brand.

He tested a Dallara-Honda for MSR last October at Sebring International Raceway, and while he plans to focus solely on IMSA this season, he remains very intrigued by IndyCar.

And with Castroneves, 47, beginning a one-year deal with MSR’s IndyCar team, there could be an obvious opening in 2024.

“Obviously, it’s not in the cards this year,” Blomqvist told NBC Sports the day before the Rolex. “Yeah, I would love to give it a go. To be honest, I think that would be an amazing step for me in my career. I enjoy the sports car stuff so much. It’s been really good to me lately. I really enjoyed the style of racing.

“But I feel like IndyCar would be a step up for me and my career. It would be fantastic if I could get that opportunity. But yeah, I guess I have to keep pushing Mike or something to give me a shot. But obviously for now, the focus is here in the sports car stuff. It’s not really down to me at the end of the day. And I’ve got to do my job and then the people who pay the bills and make the decisions obviously have to decide if that’s something worth pursuing.

“But yeah, I’d love to give it a go, and I definitely would be up for it.”

Tom Blomqvist after winning the Rolex 24 at Daytona pole on the final qualifying lap (Mike Levitt/LAT/IMSA).

A transition from IMSA to IndyCar naturally would be easier than switching teams, but it also would be comfortable because Blomqvist already seems such a good fit at MSR.

It might have seemed an unusual pairing given his European-heavy background, but Blomqvist likes the Midwestern culture that’s been built at MSR. Based just outside Columbus, Ohio, the team’s shop has “no egos, and that just enables each and every one of to reach our potential.

“Obviously, with Honda, we obviously have some great resources, but we’re up against Porsche, BMW and some big heavy hitters in the motorsports world,” he said. “I wouldn’t say we’ve got a huge team compared to them, but we’ve obviously got a very capable team, and I think that’s what has been so impressive and really, really nice to see about the work that’s been done. No stone has been left unturned.”


Blomqvist still is living in Europe and planning to commute for the nine-race GTP schedule (which has a nearly two-month break after the Rolex 24 until the Mobil 1 Twelve Hours of Sebring). But though he’s “got good friends in America, so I do have places to stay,” he seems open to being based more permanently near MSR in America.

“Let’s see what the future brings, and if that means me spending more time over here,” he said. “It’s a fantastic team. It’s a different environment to what I’m used to. It’s obviously now a hugely successful team, but it is a small team. It does feel like a very small family-operated team, which it is.

“I think Mike’s really just built this thing. It hasn’t happened overnight. Mike’s a great guy and put a lot of trust and faith in me, and I played a relatively good part in some of the success last year. I was able to reward him and give him my all every time I’m on track, and he respects that. But we are still a small team. In the grand scheme of things, we still are a really, really small team.”

Blomqvist said the BMW factory program would have two or three times the staffing of MSR – just on one of its two GTP cars.

“But it’s not the number of people that makes a difference, it’s the quality of people, and obviously Mike and HPD are a fantastic operation to go racing,” Blomqvist said. “We’re racers at heart.

“I’ve been part of some big outfits, and the European way of working is very, very different to how people go about racing in America. I’d say it’s more seat of your pants. A lot of emotion and kind of rides on that competitive spirt, competitive nature and on their personalities. It’s a lot more pure. It feels very pure. You want to win, so we go out and don’t cut corners on trying to win.”

Though it’s aligned with Liberty Media and has big-budget backing and support from Honda Performance Development, MSR also is much less corporate than most GTP teams.

A longtime and respected team owner who has built a sponsor portfolio, Shank also describes his maniacal dedication to success as “messed up,” and he’s known for dropping vulgarities into postrace interview with his blunt and self-deprecating sense of humor.

Meyer Shank Racing co-owner Mike Shank congratulates Tom Blomqvist on the Rolex 24 at Daytona pole position (Mike Levitt/LAT/IMSA).

With a more laid-back but sometimes just as biting demeanor, Blomqvist has become the team’s unquestioned leader behind the wheel

“I definitely feel a lot more immersed,” he said. “Within the team, I was a bit more of an unknown quantity the start of last year. Obviously after last season, the team trusts me a lot. And that gives me a lot of pleasure, pride and confidence. In this sport, confidence is a huge aspect of drivers’ psychology in a way. We’re in extremely high-pressure moments where my job is to perform under the pressure of these organizations and the brand as well.

“It’s just a good, healthy team to be a part of. It’s a high-pressure environment, but the team obviously have put a lot of faith in me, and I’ve been able to deliver for them on occasions.”

Rolex 24 starting lineup
Tom Blomqvist celebrates after winning the pole in the No. 60 Acura ARX-06 (Mike Levitt/LAT/IMSA).