Mazda Motorsports returns to Watkins Glen, where the team turned around its 2019 season

Mazda Watkins Glen
IMSA
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As Mazda Motorsports, with full-time drivers Oliver Jarvis and Harry Tincknell behind the wheel, tries to chase down the Konica Minolta Acura team, the team hopes Watkins Glen International is just as pivotal this year in the IMSA WeatherTech Championship Series as in 2019.

Mazda Motorsports was operating as a two-car team two years ago, and it was in the Sahlen’s Six Hours of the Glen that momentum began to develop. Finishing first and second in that race ahead of the Team Penske Acura team, they went on to score three consecutive victories. Mazda finished one-two again at Mosport in Bowmanville, Ontario, and were then first and third at Road America.

Tincknell won in 2019 with Jonathan Bomarito and Olivier Pla as co-drivers, and Jarvis was part of the second-place team. After restructuring to one car, Tincknell and Jarvis are racing the full schedule in the No. 55 with Bomarito taking on the duties as the third driver in endurance events, which he will do this weekend at the Glen.

“It seems like forever since we’ve been back there, but like you mentioned, the breakthrough victory happened there and kind of storybook fashion going one-two with the cars,” Bomarito said in a prerace Zoom call. “It was amazing, but Watkins Glen is just a phenomenal race track.

“It’s just an unbelievable facility and our cars – prototype cars, cars with the higher horsepower, a lot of downforce – they just loved that place.”

During their streak, all three drivers in this week’s lineup had a chance to visit Victory Lane. Tincknell and Bomarito’s win at the Glen was soon followed by another at Road America. Jarvis won at Mosport.

Through four races in 2021, Mazda is seeking their first win of the season. They’ve shown speed in every race, however, and came closest to victory in the Twelve Hours of Sebring with a runner-up finish for all three drivers.

Mazda finished third in the 24 Hours of Daytona and in the Acura Sports Car Challenge at the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course in Lexington, Ohio, where they also led the field to green from the pole. Their lowest finish of the season came at the Raceway at Belle Isle in Detroit when they crossed under the checkers fourth, but they started on the outside of the front row and showed promise during the weekend.

“Last year, (the Glen) was a big miss off the calendar,” Tincknell said. “I think everyone enjoys going there and certainly, very good memories for Mazda Motorsports, as you said in your prelude. It was a big moment in 2019 to get the first win for the prototype program in a long time. Obviously, we’re very motivated to go back there. It’s a big part of the championship now being two races back-to-back. Jonathan and I are defending the Six Hour race and then the next weekend as well, obviously, the WeatherTech 240 – we won that at Daytona last year, too.

“In a prototype around Watkins Glen, it doesn’t really get much better to be honest. That always does shock you the first few laps – how a corner you think is going to be third gear is fifth gear. It’s just incredible, you have to readapt your horizons a little bit.”

Preparation for the Sahlen’s Six Hour race this year has mostly been done on simulators. And while the drivers remarked on how accurate those sims have become, there is no substitute for real life conditions. Tracks change over the years – and in the Northeast with its harsh winters – conditions can change a lot.

That puts a premium on building adjustability into the car and getting the most out of the limited practice available to drivers and teams. With only one car, the team cannot try multiple setups spread across two entries like they could in 2019.

“I think certainly Mid-Ohio we didn’t roll off the truck in a window we would have liked to have been,” Jarvis said. “I thought Detroit was much better, but I think over the years, we’re very methodical in the way that we work through the sessions and we were constantly improving the car. And I think somewhere, like Detroit, we just got better and better throughout the weekend. And we ended up with a very good race car.

“It’s certainly not an intention to start the first session off the pace. We’d much rather roll out and be the quickest car and progress from there, but it’s just the way things have played out so far this year. Like I said, I think we made a big step in Detroit. We expected Mid-Ohio to be a tough race. It was surprising how quick we actually ended up in qualifying and the race itself.”

The good news for Team Mazda is that back-to-back races are on tap at the same track. One week after the Six Hours of the Glen, IMSA will hold the WeatherTech 240 at the Glen.

Alexander Rossi ‘fits like a glove’ with his new IndyCar teammates at Arrow McLaren Racing

Alexander Rossi McLaren
Nate Ryan
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PALM SPRINGS, Calif. – There are more than three dozen fresh faces on the Arrow McLaren Racing IndyCar team, but there was one that Felix Rosenqvist was particularly keen to know – Alexander Rossi.

The driver of the No. 7 Dallara-Chevrolet is the most high-profile new hire for McLaren, which has expanded to a third car to pair with the No. 6 of Rosenqvist and No. 5 of Pato O’Ward.

And there is another layer than Rossi just being the new kid. McLaren marks only his second team in NTT IndyCar Series after seven seasons at Andretti Autosport, where he began with a victory in the 2016 Indy 500 and was a championship contender for several seasons.

Rossi is a mercurial talent, and when things go wrong, the red mist quickly descends (and sometimes has led to feuds with teammates). He went winless during two of his final seasons at Andretti and was out of contention more often than not, often bringing out the prickly side of his personality.

Yet there has been no trace of the dour Rossi since joining McLaren. The pragmatic Californian is quick to remind everyone he hasn’t worked with the team yet at a track (much less been in its car), and there surely will be times he gets frustrated.

But it’s clear that Rossi, who made five Formula One starts in 2015 after several years racing in Europe, already is meshing well with an organization whose England-based parent company has deep roots in F1.

“I’ve been pleasantly surprised,” Rosenqvist said Tuesday during IndyCar’s preseason media availabilities. “I think Alex kind of has that bad-guy role a little bit in IndyCar. He’s always been that guy, which is cool. I think we need those guys, as well.

“Actually having gotten to know him, he’s been super nice, super kind. He fits like a glove in the team. I think it fills a role where Pato is kind of like the crazy guy, I’m somewhere in the middle, and Alex is the more engineering guy in the team. I think Alex has more experience, as well. He just feels like a guy who knows what he wants.

“Yeah,  good addition to the team and great guy at the same time.”

There are many reasons why Rossi’s transition from Andretti to McLaren should be smoother than his abrupt move from F1 to IndyCar seven years ago. Namely, he no longer is the only newcomer to the team’s culture.

“It’s been kind of a good time to come in because everyone is finding a new role and position and kind of learning who’s who, finding everyone’s strengths and weaknesses,” he said.

But while Rossi might have questions about the team, he has none about the series. Unlike when he arrived at Andretti without any oval experience, Rossi joins McLaren with his IndyCar credentials secured as an established star with eight victories, seven poles and 28 podiums over 114 starts.

Even in his swan song with Andretti, Rossi still managed a farewell victory last July at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course that snapped a 49-race, three-year winless drought. It seems reasonable to believe he immediately could re-emerge in his 2017-19 title contender form.

“I know the series, and I know kind of everything that goes into American open-wheel racing vs. the European open-wheel racing, which is really the biggest transition,” Rossi said. “Certainly it’s the largest kind of team switch. I’ve obviously driven for different teams in the past in Europe, in sports cars, whatever, but never really in my full-time job. I’ve driven for the same organization for a very long time and have a lot of respect and fabulous memories with those people.

“So it has been a big kind of shift, trying to compare and contrast areas that I can bring kind of recommendations and experience to maybe help fill the gaps that exist at Arrow McLaren. Again, all of this is in theory, right? I don’t really know anything. We’ll have a much better idea and plan going into St. Pete (the March 5 season opener).”

He has gotten a good handle on how things work at its Indianapolis headquarters, though, and has been pleased by the leadership of new racing director Gavin Ward (who worked in F1 before a championship stint with Josef Newgarden at Team Penske). McLaren Racing CEO Zak Brown also seems omnipresent on both sides of the Atlantic, making appearances at IndyCar races seemingly as much as in the F1 paddock.

“I think what’s very cool about Arrow McLaren is we do have the resources of the McLaren F1 team,” Rossi said. “They very much are being integrated in a lot of respects. It’s not two separate entities. McLaren Racing is one organization that has its people and resources and intellect in kind of everything. It’s been pretty cool to see how that can be an advantage to us in terms of people, resources, simulations, software, kind of everything. We’ve been able to kind of rely on that and use that as a tool that maybe other teams certainly don’t have.”

That will be helpful for Rossi with the methodologies and nuances of racing a Chevrolet for the first time after seven seasons with Honda.

And of course, there will be the relationship with O’Ward, who has been McLaren’s alpha star since 2020.

Rossi was in a similar role for Andretti, which raises questions about how McLaren will handle having two stars accustomed to being the face of the team. But O’Ward said IndyCar regulations should allow each driver to maintain their own style without being forced to adapt as in other series.

“At the end of the day, as much as teammates will help in order to gather data, it doesn’t mean they’re going to specifically help you in what you need because it’s a series where you can really tailor the car to what you want,” O’Ward said. “Rather than in Formula 1, (it’s) ‘This is the car, you need to learn how to drive this certain car.’ In IndyCar, it’s very different where you can customize it to what you want it to feel like or drive like.

“From past experience, I think Alex likes a car similar to what I do. I do think we have a very strong car in certain areas, but I definitely think he’s coming from a car where that other car has been stronger than us in other racetracks. I feel like if we can just find gains where we haven’t quite had a winning car, a podium car, that’s just going to help all of us.”

Though Thursday at The Thermal Club will mark the first time the trio works together at a track, Rosenqvist said he’s hung out a lot with Rossi (both are 31 years old) and deems his new teammate “well-integrated” in the simulator.

“I think the fit has been good with him, me and Pato,” Rosenqvist said. “On a trackside perspective, it’s obviously huge to have always a third opinion on things. Every driver’s opinion is valuable in its own way.”

Said O’Ward, 23: “It’s been great. (Rossi has) been great to have around. I think he needed a fresh start. I think he’s excited to really work with all of us, create the strongest package.”

Ever the realist, though, Rossi still is tempering some of his enthusiasm.

“Again, we haven’t really done anything yet other than some meetings and some team activities together,” he said. “I have a lot of respect for what they’ve done in IndyCar and also their prior careers. I think that we all bring something a little bit different to the table, which I think is really unique in terms of not only personalities but driving styles and experience levels.

“I think we have the ingredients to really be able to develop the team and continue to push the team forward to even a better level than what they’ve shown in the past. It’s been a really positive experience. Really I have nothing at all negative to say and can’t actually wait to get to work, get on track and start working together.”