‘Super Sebring’ weekend will produce much IMSA, WEC driver crossover in a 2023 preview

Sebring IMSA WEC
IMSA
0 Comments

Ricky Taylor will be racing on only one side of the paddock at Sebring International Raceway this weekend, but the IMSA champion will keeping his eyes trained – and his ears open – on the WEC Series, too.

With the return of “Super Sebring,” the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship will hold its prestigious Mobil 1 Twelve Hours of Sebring on the day after the 1,000 Miles of Sebring season opener for the FIA World Endurance Championship, the European-based sports car circuit whose centerpiece is the 24 Hours of Le Mans.

Taylor will be racing an LMP2 car for Cool Racing in at Le Mans in June, so he will be checking in with one of the team’s owners, but he also will be trying to glean info from No. 10 Acura DPi teammates Will Stevens and Filipe Albuquerque. Both Wayne Taylor Racing drivers also will be racing in the WEC at Sebring – one of many weekend crossovers in a preview of what big-league sports car racing should resemble on a regular basis next season.

SEBRING PRIMER: Weekend schedule and how to watch the Twelve Hours of Sebring on NBC Sports

“It’s nice to have the WEC back on the weekend with us in IMSA,” Taylor said. “It’s always nice to go see all the teams that you don’t get to see very often and keep my eye on what’s going on because Le Mans is always a big deal. And to keep my eye on who’s competitive and strong. Being on a team with Will and Filipe who are in two other big teams on the WEC side, I may be taking some notes on all their little gossips and things as well to see what I can learn. But yeah, it’s really exciting.”

Because of the pandemic, it’s been three years since WEC and IMSA have been paired at Sebring, and the world’s top two sports car series return on the cusp of even much greater alignment.

With a convergence of the rules governing their premier categories next season, prototypes from WEC and IMSA can race head to head for overall victories in the Rolex 24 at Daytona (and other IMSA races in the rebranded top GTP division) and Le Mans. It’s being heralded as the return of a new “Ford vs. Ferrari” era.

IMSA will be rolling out its new LMDh prototype next year, but the WEC’s Hypercar already is on track and will be making its Sebring debut.

Mike Conway, Kamui Kobayashi and Jose Maria Lopez will race Friday in Hypercar for Toyota Gazoo Racing before sliding over Saturday to DPi Cadillacs for the Twelve Hours of Sebring (Conway in the No. 31 Action Express, Kobayashi and Lopez in the No. 48).

There will be even more crossover from the LMP2 class entry list for the WEC race, which will include double duty for IMSA drivers Albuquerque, Stevens, Mike Rockenfeller (No. 48 Ally Cadillac) and Oliver Jarvis (No. 60 Meyer Shank Racing Acura).

Team Penske, which will be re-entering IMSA’s top division in 2023 with Porsche’s new LMDh, also will begin a full-season WEC campaign in LMP2 with a lineup that includes Felipe Nasr, the 2021 DPi champion who also will be driving endurance races in GTD Pro for Pfaff Racing (which won the Rolex 24).

Competing in two events that will comprise roughly 20 hours of racing in less than a day and a half has presented some logistical challenges. Chip Ganassi Racing Cadillac driver Sebastien Bourdais was slated to race LMP2 in WEC but was replaced by Rockenfeller.

“It was a Cadillac call, which I totally understand,” Bourdais said. “If the 1,000 miles was after the 12 hours, that would have been a different story. The team was basically not super comfortable with me doing a 1,000-mile race before the 12 hours.”

Other drivers are facing similar logistical juggling with the Toyota drivers electing to focus solely on WEC until Saturday’s IMSA race.

Jarvis, who took part in two days of WEC Prologue testing at Sebring last weekend, said he would be prioritizing his IMSA team over the No. 23 ORECA of United Autosports. But a hectic schedule was worth the extra laps on the 17-turn, 3.74-mile road course whose bone-jarring bumps are legendary.

“The big pro is track time,” Jarvis said. “Sebring is just one of those tracks. This is my sixth race at Sebring, and I’m still learning every time, and it does change. T17 is a corner I’m not sure I’ll ever get used to it. I could do 10,000 laps around Sebring and I’m still finding details in Turn 17. It’s so unique. There’s a lot of work.

“Jumping between the two cars are different. They’ve reduced downforce on the P2 car, which has certainly changed the behavior of that car. And it’s probably moved it further away from a DPi. I expect to see maybe 3 to 5 seconds difference between the two categories, which is quite a large difference. It’ll be my first time doing it. Busy weekend, but I’m confident I can make it work.

“For me it’s very clear (IMSA) is my priority. I wouldn’t say I’ve got an exact schedule, but I won’t qualify in WEC. So I’m not compromised there. I’ll make sure I’m available whenever needed in the IMSA paddock and car. I’ll do as much as I can in the IMSA car and then switch focus for the race for WEC and then move back to IMSA on Saturday. Certainly not the way the Toyota guys are doing it. I’ll be splitting my time between the two, but certainly no compromises on the IMSA side.”

There also will be some team crossover on the GT side. For the first time, Corvette Racing will field full-time entries this year with the No. 64 C8.R in the WEC’s GTE Pro (which is in its final season) and the No. 3 C8.R in the new IMSA GTD Pro category (after taking the 2021 GTLM title in the class’ final season). Both cars raced the Rolex 24 at Daytona and struggled with pace (which the team attributed to Balance of Performance-mandated impacts on weight).

No. 64 drivers Tommy Milner and Nick Tandy were optimistic about their chances in the WEC season opener because of the team’s long history at Sebring.

“It’s probably the best-case scenario in some ways starting at Sebring,” Milner said. “ We know the racetrack, we know the tires, we know the car. We should be pretty competitive out of the box, I would imagine. If that’s not the case, then we will have some data that us as a team and the WEC can use to hopefully make the racing close and exciting as this class always seems to provide.”

Said Tandy: “The thing I’m looking forward to most is seeing how the different weekend plays out. The fact that we have our first weekend in the WEC as a single-car team, we’re actually sharing the weekend with our teammates, even though they are (in a) different race and different category. I’m looking forward to having another car to cheer on in another class and in another race and how the weekend plays out.”

Strong rebounds for Alex Palou, Chip Ganassi amid some disappointments in the Indy 500

0 Comments

INDIANAPOLIS – Alex Palou had not turned a wheel wrong the entire Month of May at the Indy 500 until Rinus VeeKay turned a wheel into the Chip Ganassi Racing pole-sitter leaving pit road on Lap 94.

“There is nothing I could have done there,” Palou told NBC Sports. “It’s OK, when it is my fault or the team’s fault because everybody makes mistakes. But when there is nothing, you could have done differently there, it feels bad and feels bad for the team.”

Marcus Ericsson was a master at utilizing the “Tail of the Dragon” move that breaks the draft of the car behind him in the closing laps to win last year’s Indianapolis 500. On Sunday, however, the last of three red flags in the final 16 laps of the race had the popular driver from Sweden breathing fire after Team Penske’s Josef Newgarden beat him at his own game on the final lap to win the Indianapolis 500.

Despite the two disappointments, team owner Chip Ganassi was seen on pit road fist-bumping a member on his four-car team in this year’s Indianapolis 500 after his drivers finished second, fourth, sixth and seventh in the tightly contested race.

Those are pretty good results, but at the Indianapolis 500, there is just one winner and 32 losers.

“There is only one winner, but it was a hell of a show,” three-time Indianapolis 500 winner and Chip Ganassi Racing consultant Dario Franchitti told NBC Sports. “Alex was very fast, and he got absolutely caught out in somebody else’s wreck. There was nothing he could have done, but he and the 10 car, great recovery.

“Great recovery by all four cars because at half distance, we were not looking very good.”

After 92 laps, the first caution flew for Sting Ray Robb of Dale Coyne Racing hitting the Turn 1 wall.

During pit stops on Lap 94, Palou had left his stall when the second-place car driven by VeeKay ran into him, putting Palou’s Honda into the wall. The car sustained a damaged front wing, but the Chip Ganassi crew was able to get him back in the race on the lead lap but in 28th position.

Palou ultimately would fight his way to a fourth-place finish in a race the popular Spaniard could have won. His displeasure with VeeKay, whom he sarcastically called “a legend” on his team radio after the incident, was evident.

“The benefit of being on pole is you can drive straight and avoid crashes, and he was able to crash us on the side on pit lane, which is pretty tough to do, but he managed it,” Palou told NBC Sports. “Hopefully next year we are not beside him. Hopefully, next year we have a little better luck.”

Palou started on the pole and led 36 laps, just three fewer than race leader Pato O’Ward of Arrow McLaren Racing.

“We started really well, was managing the fuel as we wanted, our car was pretty good,” Palou said. “Our car wasn’t great, we dropped to P4 or P5, but we still had some good stuff.

“On the pit stop, the 21 (VeeKay) managed to clip us. Nothing we could have done there. It was not my team’s fault or my fault.

“We had to drop to the end. I’m happy we made it back to P4. We needed 50 more laps to make it happen, but it could have been a lot worse after that contact.

“I learned a lot, running up front at the beginning and in mid-pack and then the back. I learned a lot.

“It feels amazing when you win it and not so good when things go wrong. We were a bit lucky with so many restarts at the end to make it back to P4 so I’m happy with that.”

Palou said the front wing had to be changed and the toe-in was a bit off, but he still had a fast car.

In fact, his Honda was the best car at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway all month. His pole-winning four lap average speed of 234.217 miles per hour around the 2.5-mile Indianapolis Motor Speedway was a record for this fabled race.

Palou looked good throughout the race, before he had to scratch and claw and race his way back to the top-five after he restarted 28th.

In the Indianapolis 500, however, the best car doesn’t always win.

“It’s two years in a row that we were leading the race at the beginning and had to drop to last,” Palou said. “Maybe next year, we will start in the middle of the field and go on to win the race.

“I know he didn’t do it on purpose. It’s better to let that pass someday.”

Palou said the wild racing at the end was because the downforce package used in Sunday’s race means the drivers have to be aggressive. The front two cars can battle for the victory, but cars back in fourth or fifth place can’t help determine the outcome of the race.

That is when the “Tail of the Dragon” comes into the play.

Franchitti helped celebrate Ericsson’s win in 2022 with his “Tail of the Dragon” zigzag move – something he never had to do in any of his three Indianapolis 500 victories because they all finished under caution.

In 2023, however, IndyCar Race Control wants to make every attempt to finish the race under green, without going past the scheduled distance like NASCAR’s overtime rule.

Instead of extra laps, they stop the race with a red flag, to create a potential green-flag finish condition.

“You do what you have to do to win within the rules, and it’s within the rules, so you do it,” Franchitti said. “The race is 200 laps and there is a balance.

“Marcus did a great job on that restart and so did Josef. It was just the timing of who was where and that was it.

“If you knew it was going to go red, you would have hung back on the lap before.

“Brilliant job by the whole Ganassi organization because it wasn’t looking very good at half-distance.

“Full marks to Josef Newgarden and Team Penske.”

Franchitti is highly impressed by how well Ericsson works with CGR engineer Brad Goldberg and how close this combination came to winning the Indianapolis 500 two-years-in-a-row.

It would have been the first back-to-back Indy 500 winner since Helio Castroneves in 2001 and 2002.

“Oh, he’s a badass,” Franchitti said Ericsson. “He proved it last year. He is so calm all day. What more do you need? As a driver, he’s fast and so calm.”

Ericsson is typically in good spirits and jovial.

He was stern and direct on pit road after the race.

“I did everything right, I did an awesome restart, caught Josef off-guard and pulled away,” Ericsson said on pit lane. “It’s hard to pull away a full lap and he got me back.

“I’m mostly disappointed with the way he ended. I don’t think it was fair and safe to do that restart straight out of the pits on cold tires for everyone.

“To me, it was not a good way to end that race.

“Congrats to Josef. He didn’t do anything wrong. He is a worthy champion, but it shouldn’t have ended like that.”

Palou also didn’t understand the last restart, which was a one-start showdown.

“I know that we want to finish under green,” Palou said. “Maybe the last restart I did, I didn’t understand. It didn’t benefit the CGR team.

“I’m not very supportive of the last one, but anyway.”

Dixon called the red flags “a bit sketchy.”

“The Red Flags have become a theme to the end of the race, but sometimes they can catch you out,” Dixon said. “I know Marcus is frustrated with it.

“All we ask for is consistency. I think they will do better next time.

“It’s a tough race. People will do anything they can to win it and with how these reds fall, you have to be in the right place at the right time. The problem is when they throw a Red or don’t throw a Red dictates how the race will end.

“It’s a bloody hard race to win. Congrats to Josef Newgarden and to Team Penske.”

Follow Bruce Martin on Twitter at @BruceMartin_500