Team Penske sports car drivers still hunting for new rides in 2021

Team Penske IMSA future
IMSA
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Saturday will mark the midpoint of an IMSA season turned upside down by the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, which has contributed to scuttling the future for Team Penske drivers.

With a delay of more than five months between IMSA’s Rolex 24 at Daytona opener and its second event (also at Daytona) — and with numerous WeatherTech SportsCar Championship races subsequently canceled or rescheduled — the six-hour TireRack.com Grand Prix at Michelin Road Atlanta is the sixth of a scheduled 11 events.

In the previous six seasons since major-league sports car racing came under one banner, there annually have been only two races after Labor Day weekend, and the driver-team lineup for the following season largely can be settled by this point on the calendar.

ROAD ATLANTA ENTRIES: Who will be racing Saturday in the six-hour event

But much uncertainty remains this year. And it starts with the defending series champions in GTLM and DPi.

In GTLM, Porsche is exiting IMSA after this season with its 911 RSR-19 teams of Earl Bamber and Laurens Vanthoor (who won the 2019 title) and Nick Tandy and Fred Makowiecki. That quartet could find placement in other Porsche racing programs.

A Team Penske hauler at an IMSA race (IMSA).

The prospects seem hazier at Team Penske, which is mothballing its DPi program after this season in a split from Acura.

A year after their title in the No. 6, Dane Cameron and Juan Pablo Montoya are exploring new opportunities, as are No. 7 teammates Helio Castroneves and Ricky Taylor, who just ended a two-year winless drought in the most recent DPi race at Road America.

It’s unfamiliar territory for Taylor, who won 12 races in four seasons with Wayne Taylor Racing before joining Penske in 2018.

“I’ve been spoiled the past four or five years coming from my dad’s team and being kind of in a relationship with GM for a while, and it was a little more secure,” Taylor said Wednesday during a Zoom media call.

“This year has been weird in more than one way. Although it is relatively early, it’s always stressful. All four of us are looking and working on stuff, and it’s always difficult. It’s another one of those weird things where you’re not going to be able to just walk around the paddock and go meet people, either. It’s odd for sure.”

Even if the paddock access were less restrictive for pounding the pavement, the conversations still might not be conducive for finding a new ride. The season won’t conclude until Nov. 14 with the Mobil 1 Twelve Hours of Sebring, about a month later than usual.

Dane Cameron and Juan Pablo Montoya won the DPi championship last season (IMSA).

“In the industry, everybody’s timeline is very different at this stage,” said Cameron, who added an Intercontinental GT Challenge race to his schedule Thursday. “It makes it a little bit more challenging than normal with the traditional schedule and in a world that’s a little bit more stable than we have right now. Some people aren’t ready to talk about it even though we are now in September.

“Yeah, it’s a bit hard to see quite where everything is going to go just yet, but I guess we’ll find out soon enough. It’ll be do or die time here before you know it when you get toward the back end of the year. You’re going to have to make decisions and make plans because 2021 will be here before you know it.”

Cameron and Taylor both are 31-year-old sports car champions who seem committed to staying in IMSA. The outlook might be different for their teammates, who are both in their mid-40s and have multiple victories in the Indianapolis 500. Castroneves openly has lobbied for a full-time return to the IndyCar Series.

Montoya said he’d consider running the Indy 500 again if offered a contending car, and he also has been involved with helping further 14-year-old son Sebastian’s career in Europe. But the veteran of IndyCar, Formula One and NASCAR doesn’t know what 2021 will hold yet.

“I have no idea,” Montoya said. “When I know, I’ll tell you. If a good opportunity is there and worth doing, for sure. I don’t want to stop. I love racing. I still want to try to win (the 24 Hours of) Le Mans and everything.

“We have to make sure the right opportunity is there. If the opportunity is not there, then we’ll see what happens.”

IMSA

Cadillac, Acura battle for top speed as cars back on track for Rolex 24 at Daytona practice

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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – The new hybrid prototypes of Cadillac and Acura battled atop the speed chart as practice resumed Thursday for the Rolex 24 at Daytona.

Chip Ganassi Racing driver Richard Westbrook was fastest Thursday afternoon in the No. 02 Cadillac V-LMDh with a 1-minute, 35.185-second lap around the 12-turn, 3.56-mile road course at Daytona International Speedway.

That pace topped Ricky Taylor’s 1:35.366 lap that topped the Thursday morning session that marked the first time the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship was back on track since qualifying Sunday afternoon that concluded the four-day Roar Before The Rolex 24 test.

In a final session Thursday night, Matt Campbell was fastest (1:35.802) in the No. 7 Porsche Penske Motorsports Porsche 963 but still was off the times set by Westbrook and Taylor.

Punctuated by Tom Blomqvist’s pole position for defending race winner Meyer Shank Racing, the Acura ARX-06s had been fastest for much of the Roar and led four consecutive practice sessions.

DETAILS FOR THE 61ST ROLEX 24How to watch, entry lists, schedules for the IMSA season opener

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But the times have been extremely tight in the new Grand Touring Prototype (GTP) category that has brought hybrid engines to IMSA’s premier class. Only 0.9 seconds separated the nine LMDh cars in GTP in qualifying, and though the spread slightly widened to 1.378 seconds in Thursday’s practices with teams on varying strategies and preparation, Westbrook still pooh-poohed the importance of speeds.

“It’s always nice to be at the top, but I don’t think it means too much or read too much into it” Westbrook said. “Big fuel tanks in the GTP class this year, so you have no idea what fuel levels people are running. We had a good run, and the car is really enjoyable to drive now. I definitely wasn’t saying that a month ago.

“It really does feel good now. We are working on performance and definitely unlocking some potential, and it just gives us more confidence going into the race. It’s going to be super tight. Everyone’s got the same power, everyone has the same downforce, everyone has the same drag levels and let’s just go race.”

Because teams have put such a premium on reliability, handling mostly has suffered in the GTPs, but Westbrook said the tide had turned Thursday.

“These cars are so competitive, and you were just running it for the sake of running it in the beginning, and there’s so much going on, you don’t really have time to work on performance,” he said. “A lot of emphasis was on durability in the beginning, and rightly so, but now finally we can work on performance, and that’s the same for other manufacturers as well. But we’re worrying about ourselves and improving every run, and I think everybody’s pretty happy with their Cadillac right now.”

Mike Shank, co-owner of Blomqvist’s No. 60 on the pole, said his team still was facing reliability problems despite its speed.

“We address them literally every hour,” Shank said. “We’re addressing some little thing we’re doing better to try to make it last. And also we’re talking about how we race the race, which will be different from years past.

“Just think about every system in the car, I’m not going to say which ones we’re working on, but there are systems in the car that ORECA and HPD are continually trying to improve. By the way, sometimes we put them on the car and take them off before it even goes out on the track because something didn’t work with electronics. There’s so much programming. So many departments have to talk to each other. That bridge gets broken from a code not being totally correct, and the car won’t run. Or the power steering turns off.”

Former Rolex 24 winner Renger van der Zande of Ganassi said it still is a waiting game until the 24-hour race begins Saturday shortly after 1:30 p.m.

“I think the performance of the car is good,” van der Zande said. “No drama. We’re chipping away on setup step by step and the team is in control. It’s crazy out there what people do on the track at the moment. It’s about staying cool and peak at the right moment, and it’s not the right moment yet for that. We’ll keep digging.”


PRACTICE RESULTS:

Click here for Session I (by class)

Click here for Session II (by class)

Click here for Session III (by class)

Combined speeds