Sebring Wrap-Up: Please Help Me, I’m Falling. Taylor, Cadillacs Stay Strong; GTLM Surprise

I need help. I am slowly rekindling my love for sportscar racing. The IMSA Weather Tech Sportscar Championship is growing on me.  Will I go to more races?  Probably not. I have a full Indycar schedule.  However, I will pay more attention to them when they race with Indycar.

This year’s 65th running of the Sebring 12 hour race was a fascinating event. Going in, I was wondering if the Cadillacs would be as strong here as they were at Daytona. This track is very different than Daytona. The results were basically the same.  Wayne Taylor Racing (below) swept the 36 hours of Florida while Action Express finished second again.  The difference was Taylor dominated and won without any last minute controversy.0318171253i

In GTLM, the Ganassi Ford GT’s were expected torepeat their Daytona victory, but issues allowed the #3  Corvette (below)  to prevail. The Corvettes struggled at Daytona, and the #4 Vette retired around the midpoint of this  race.0316171534

Why am I starting to like this series? I used to follow sportscars as avidly as I do Indycar when I was younger. I began to focus on Indycar more and sportscars got pushed to the side.  I like the diversity of engines and chassis. I like the fact that a driver who has no chance at the overall win can still win his class. I like that there are lots of cars racing at once.  I’m finding the races getting easier to follow.

Sebring- the town, the track, the race- is my favorite sportscar event. The track is old and looks very similar to how lit looked in the 60’s.  Fan amenities were somewhat improved this year. They could use a couple more video boards.  Club 12  was a nice addition. It had a full bar and a very nice menu for breakfast, lunch and dinner.

I explored some viewing spots for the first time this year. Last year I discovered the turn 7 grandstand just outside the hotel. This stand is on the hairpin with a view of the straight leading to the turn and a good view of the straight as they exit the turn. I crossed the bridge and walked down to Turn 9. From the mound inside the hairpin, you get a nice look at the approach to the turn, then watch the quick acceleration toward turn 8. Walking toward Turn9 and looking back to the hairpin is an action-packed place to watch the race.  I will spend more time there next year. My goal is to get all the way around the track both inside and out. I may need to live a long time.

The fans at Sebring are a mix of serious race fans and serious party fans. They remind me of the 60’s at IMS.  I also saw some incredible camping setups. One site had a mini kitchen set up complete with a sink with running water.  Many sites are made to resemble living rooms. Campers cover virtually every inch of the grounds. The gates open Wednesday, the day before the event begins. Many fans camping arrive several days before and wait for the track to open.

In just three short years, Sebring has earned a place on my annual calendar. I ran into more Indycar fans that I know this year as well. I have also made some friends among the sportscar crowd. It doesn’t hurt the appeal of the race that some Indycar drivers participate. St. Pete and Rolex 24 winner Sebastien Bourdais came up just a bit short in his bid for the Florida sweep.

I recommend a trip to the Sebring 12 hour. It is a fun weekend. Endurance racing has always had an intrigue for me. I am glad I can watch it unfold in person.

Greatest 33 Non-winners update- I have narrowed the field to 48 drivers. I am compiling stats for them and will have the list out next week so both my readers can create their grids.

 

It’s Not Where You Start…..

 

A wild weekend ended with a surprise winner.  Street course winners don’t come from last to win.  Sebastian Bourdais showed strength in practice, but a qualifying crash put him last on the starting grid. I thought he had a strong enough car to salvage a top 10. He won by more than nine seconds, passing Simon Pagenaud for the lead on lap 37 and not looking back. He was out of the lead only for pit stops the rest of the way.

The first part of the race was one of the best street races I’ve seen. Multiple passes, including two for the lead, close racing throughout the field, and two caution periods in the first 30 laps helped make it quite a show.  The caution free last part caused the field to get quite strung out with an occasional battle here and there. Overall, it was an above average St. Pete race.

I don’t think Graham Rahal and Charlie Kimball  will be having dinner together anytime soon. They collided at Watkins Glen last year and had a first lap incident yesterday. I’m still not sure who was at fault yesterday.  It just seems Kimball is becoming a part of more than his share of these crashes in tight corners.

Power outage.  Will Power won the pole Saturday and was a strong favorite to win the race. He took the lead at the start, but was passed by James Hinchcliffe soon after the restart on lap 5. He made an early pit stop due to a  flat-spotted tire, hit an air hose on the way out, resulting in a drive through penalty. He worked his ay back to third before the engine began to sour.

He is still in a better position than he was after last year’s race, where he didn’t start yet almost won the championship.  Last year he left St. Pete with the single point for winning the pole. Do not count him out yet.

Other great drives yesterday- Rookie Ed Jones finished tenth, running a very steady, clean race. It was a very nice debut for his first Indycar race.

Ryan Hunter-Reay lost his rear brakes in the morning warmup and crashed hard into the tires in turn 10. The accident reinforced everyone’s concerns about the brakes during the race, but except for Spencer  Pigot, there didn’t appear to be much of an issue. Hunter-Reay finished fourth, passing teammate Takuma Sato late.

Speaking of Pigot, before the brake issue, which happened as he entered the pits, he was having a great day. He moved to the top 10 quickly and was in position for a solid finish. He seems much more comfortable in his second year with the team.

Honda is definitely back in the game. They led all the practice sessions, just missed the pole, then dominated the race standings. There goes my theory that 2017 would be a 2016 rerun.

The Event

The crowd seemed to be stable, about the same as last year. It was wonderful to see and spend time with so many friends. It was just a great feeling to be back at an Indycar event.

The biggest issue was entering the track. I understand the need for security checks. This year the system was very inefficient, causing waiting lines of more than an hour according to some reports. I arrived later than I normally do on Saturday, a tale for another day, and was shocked at how long it took to move through the entrance. Some team staff were furious at having to wait to get in since they carried nothing with them. One said they were late for a meeting. They simply need more bag checkers and an express line for those with no bags. This was the worst it has been here.

The volunteer staff did their usual fine job. They are friendly and helpful. St. Petersburg is getting more and more community buy-in for the race. The mayor is fully behind the event.

Thursday I head to Sebring for my favorite sportscar race of the year, the 12 hours of Sebring.  I will be tweeting all weekend and have a report next week. I am anxious to see the midway upgrades they have done. They have also added a showing of the Steve McQueen movie, Le Mans. I think they should show half of it.

ICYMI: Power Restored in St. Pete

After three practice session dominated by Honda, I heard a lot of discussion about whether Chevy was sandbagging. After qualifying, it does not appear that was totally true. Four Hondas made the Firestone Fast 6, a better representation than at any race last year. However, a Chevy won the pole. One thing we need to keep in mind is there are 13 Honda cars and only 8 Chevys. The odds are in Honda’s favor.  However, I believe given this same proportion last year, the first rows would have been all Chevys. Honda has definitely made strides this season. Scott Dixon beat Power’s track record in Round 2 today.

In the end, Will Power is again on the Pole. This is the 7th Pole here and the 45th of his career. When he retires, Power will go down as one the great qualifiers in IndyCar history. He has some unfinished business from last year, when he missed the race. Power has a good shot at finishing where he starts.

The two biggest disappointments in qualifying belong to Marco Andretti and Sebastien Bourdais.  Andretti led FP1 and was strong in the other practices rounds. He did not even advance out of Round 1, mirroring many of his results from last year.  Bourdais crashed in his qualifying group.  Some teams, notably Rahal, still experienced brake issues.

Brakes will be a concern tomorrow. I have seen many lockups in turn 1. Overheating brakes going into turn 1 could be a huge worry.  This is a heavy braking track. Failures and overheating will need to be monitored closely tomorrow.

It will be an interesting race. Josef Newgarden starts from fourth. He gets special mention because the winner has started from outside row 2 the last four years. A chance of rain late in the race will also mix things up. The forecast as of 10:30 Saturday night as I write calls for a 40% chance of morning showers, then cloudy.

Tomorrow when we wake up, we can finally turn to our partners and say those three little words, “It’s Race Day!”

Indy Lights Notes:

First, a salute to Carlin Racing for honoring John Surtees, who died Friday.

0311171045.jpg

The Indy Lights race today was one of the best I’ve seen from this series. There were many battles for position and several passes for position.  The star of the race was Colton Herta, who started fifth and fought his way to second. He had some tough battles to get by a couple drivers, but showed patience and made moves at the right time.  Aaron Telitz won the race going away. He led from start to finish with a steady pace and got through lapped traffic with little trouble.

My final race report will be out Monday. Enjoy the race. I think this season may be more fun than I thought.

From Last Night Opening Day- Reunions, Bumps, Thumps, and Brakes

It was a great opening day for Indycar. Fans reunited after a long winter, cars ran two very active sessions, and there was also some good news regarding major partners.  Let’s start with the good news first.

Chevrolet and Honda signed multi-year extensions with the series, joining extensions already in place with Firestone and Dallara. Added to the date equity established with the long range schedule, the series continues to gain stability.  One thought I have is did Chevy and Honda sign these extensions because a third engine manufacturer is close to coming on board?  That may or may not be a factor.  We shall see.

I was at the track only 5 minutes before I began seeing familiar faces. It was great catching up with so many people today. I will get to meet up with others tomorrow.  This the greatest thing about the first race of the year.

The practice sessions were very busy. The new tire allotment seemed to accomplish one of its goals, to have cars on track most of a session. No one ran the reds in the morning. I didn’t expect they would, since the afternoon round was about the time qualifying will be tomorrow. In the afternoon, some cars ran reds most of the time, some started on blacks and switched. I think there a few who ran blacks the entire time.  Marco Andretti and Scott Dixon led the morning and afternoon, respectively.  Both drive Hondas. Honda cars dominated the top ten in both sessions.  Could tomorrow be a different story? What was different about today was the number of Hondas in the top ten.  They have led practice rounds,  but usually did not have many others in the top ten.

Parts of the track were repaved, but drivers still complain about how bumpy it is. This has always been a bumpy track, and probably always will be.  There are still issues with brake heating. Spencer Pigot ran just a few laps before he was called in because his brakes were overheating. Indycar approved duct work modifications to help cool the brakes, but it looks like there is still some work to do.  This could have an effect on the outcome of the race Sunday. Sato’s crash in the afternoon may have been brake related.

Will Power had a crash in turn 10 in the morning practice. There was damage to the rear wing assembly. He rebounded to finish second in the afternoon. This accident was mild compared to his shunt last year on opening day.

Qualifying tomorrow will answer the question, is Honda better this year? A pole would be a definite answer, though three cars in the Fast 6 would also show progress.  As Scott Dixon said after the final practice today, “It’s Friday. It means nothing.”

A sad note to end on. John Surtees, former motorcycle and F1 champion, and championship car builder died today at the age of 83. He is the only person to win world championships in two forms of motorsport.   The car he drove to the world title, and a car he built are on display at the Barber Vintage Museum in Birmingham, Alabama. If you’re going to the race at Barber, visit the museum. It is well worth your time.

ICYMI: St. Pete Preview- Penske Party on the Beach

Opening Race Weekend is finally here. Gosh, it seems like it’s been a long time.  The Firestone Indy Grand Prix of St. Petersburg – green flag Sunday at 12:30 on ABC -again begins the season. This is my fifth time at this race.  I have seen this event grow a lot since my first trip […]

Opening Race Weekend is finally here. Gosh, it seems like it’s been a long time.  The Firestone Indy Grand Prix of St. Petersburg – green flag Sunday at 12:30 on ABC -again begins the season. This is my fifth time at this race.  I have seen this event grow a lot since my first trip here, especially the last two years.

Friday’s practices may tell us how much the Hondas have improved. We will also get to see how Ganassi and Foyt cars are adjusting to their new engines and aero packages. Honda believes they will be better since the same package as last year is mandated for this year. Of course, Chevy has likely made some gains as well. Qualifying will be the main indicator of where Honda stands.

As far as the race, Penske dominates this race. The team has won eight of the twelve races here, including the last two and three of the last four.  I don’t see a change in this trend. One Penske driver is particularly motivated to win this race.  Will Power won the pole last year but missed the race due to what was believed to be a concussion.  Sitting out probably cost him the season title. Look for Will in Victory Lane Sunday. He easily could be joined by two teammates on the podium, though I would not rule out a Honda driver sneaking in there.

I am eager to see how the new push to pass format plays out.  Drivers have 150 seconds total to use as they wish. each push can last up to 15 seconds if they wish. It cannot be used at the start of the race or on restarts except for a restart with 2 laps or fewer left. I hope there isn’t ever a restart that late.  Will starts be more bunched up? I’m glad I’m sitting in Turn 1.

Things that may take a while to adjust to:

Scott Dixon in a blue car

J R Hildebrand in the 21

Josef Newgarden in the 2

A number 4 Foyt car

Bourdais in the 18

 

Great Idea:

Just before I began writing this piece on Wednesday, I saw a tweet from Schmidt-Peterson Motorsports called “Our Starting Lineup”.  It listed the race pit crew by position, their faces placed around a car outline. These guys work hard and it’s great that their team is recognizing them in this way. I hope other teams follow this example.

I will send out reports from the track Friday and Saturday. Let me know if there is any information you’d like me to get and I’ll do my best to get it to you. If you’re going to the race, I hope to meet you if I haven’t yet.

 

ICYMI: St. Pete Preview- Penske Party on the Beach

Opening Race Weekend is finally here. Gosh, it seems like it’s been a long time.  The Firestone Indy Grand Prix of St. Petersburg – green flag Sunday at 12:30 on ABC -again begins the season. This is my fifth time at this race.  I have seen this event grow a lot since my first trip here, especially the last two years.

Friday’s practices may tell us how much the Hondas have improved. We will also get to see how Ganassi and Foyt cars are adjusting to their new engines and aero packages. Honda believes they will be better since the same package as last year is mandated for this year. Of course, Chevy has likely made some gains as well. Qualifying will be the main indicator of where Honda stands.

As far as the race, Penske dominates this race. The team has won eight of the twelve races here, including the last two and three of the last four.  I don’t see a change in this trend. One Penske driver is particularly motivated to win this race.  Will Power won the pole last year but missed the race due to what was believed to be a concussion.  Sitting out probably cost him the season title. Look for Will in Victory Lane Sunday. He easily could be joined by two teammates on the podium, though I would not rule out a Honda driver sneaking in there.

I am eager to see how the new push to pass format plays out.  Drivers have 150 seconds total to use as they wish. each push can last up to 15 seconds if they wish. It cannot be used at the start of the race or on restarts except for a restart with 2 laps or fewer left. I hope there isn’t ever a restart that late.  Will starts be more bunched up? I’m glad I’m sitting in Turn 1.

Things that may take a while to adjust to:

Scott Dixon in a blue car

J R Hildebrand in the 21

Josef Newgarden in the 2

A number 4 Foyt car

Bourdais in the 18

 

Great Idea:

Just before I began writing this piece on Wednesday, I saw a tweet from Schmidt-Peterson Motorsports called “Our Starting Lineup”.  It listed the race pit crew by position, their faces placed around a car outline. These guys work hard and it’s great that their team is recognizing them in this way. I hope other teams follow this example.

I will send out reports from the track Friday and Saturday. Let me know if there is any information you’d like me to get and I’ll do my best to get it to you. If you’re going to the race, I hope to meet you if I haven’t yet.

 

Indycar Season Preview- Racing in Place While Waiting for 2018

Some news updates this morning:

Jay Howard will be in the No. 77 car, the one Tony Stewart’s Foundation is running under Sam Schmidt’s team, for the Indianapolis 500. This will be Howard’s second 500. His first was in 2011, where he started 20th and finished 30th.

Scott Dixon’s car will be sponsored by GE LED light bulbs at St. Pete this weekend. The team is still looking for a season long sponsor and hopes to have something in place by Long Beach..

 

This will be a year of waiting. We are waiting for the new look car in 2018; waiting to see if a third engine manufacturer is on the horizon. Meanwhile, we should see a year similar to last year. Aerokit development was frozen for this year, meaning Chevy cars will win most of the races, and a Honda will win Indy and likely Pocono and Texas. A Penske driver will win the championship after a tough battle with a teammate.

No season is entirely predictable.  There are some wild cards out there. First, there were  some significant driver moves. The largest move is Josef Newgarden  going to Penske.  Carlos Munoz moves to Foyt, joining Conor Daly. Sebastien Bourdais moves into what was  Dal y’s ride at Coyne last year.  Takuma Sato goes to Andretti replacing Munoz.

The second wild card is teams that switched engines. Chip Ganassi Racing returns to Honda power, and Foyt now is a Chevy team.  At the Phoenix test both teams seemed to be still learning their new aero kits and engines. Will Ganassi be the team that makes Honda more competitive the entire season?

J. R. Hildebrand returns to the Verizon Indy Car Series full time with Ed Carpenter Racing, replacing Newgarden.  Spencer Pigot will drive the No. 20 on road and street courses.

Will Andretti Autosport have a better year?  Marco Andretti seems more focused. Having Bryan Herta call strategy for him is a good move. Herta is a great race strategist. Exhibit A- last year’s Indy 500. Will Alexander Rossi be hurt by having a new strategist? Time will tell. I think there won’t be much of an effect.  Ryan Hunter-Reay was in position to win both 500 mile races last year, but some strange things happened. His pit road collision at Indianapolis took him out of contention, and a brief power hiccup late in the race at Pocono cost him the victory there. I think he will win a race this year.

Schmidt Peterson retains James Hinchcliffe and Mikhail Aleshin. Both drivers were on the verge of winning last year. I look for Aleshin to get his first victory this season. Hinchcliffe should also have a good chance as well. This is one of my sleeper teams.

My other sleeper team is Dale Coyne Racing.  They have upgraded the team off the track and Bourdais is a big addition on the track.  Coyne is tactical. he knows what his cars need to do to qualify well, and he knows how to get them to the front on race day. If pit strategy falls their way, there could be some good results this year for them. Rookie Ed Jones joins the team. He had two great years in Indy Lights, winning last year’s title.  He will need to have patience as he learns to race in IndyCar.

Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing has been the top finishing Honda the last two years. They could very well keep that distinction with a strong start to the year. Graham Rahal will keep his streak of winning races in consecutive years alive.

Ganassi may have a slow start as they figure out the Honda package, but Scott Dixon will likely have a better year than he had last year, when early issues pushed him down the standings. Ganassi will finish the year strong.  It will be another solid year for Tony Kanaan. Max Chilton should show some improvement in his second year. Charlie Kimball will continue to be steady.

Team Penske will again lead the pack most if not all the way.  It will be another battle between Will Power and defending champ Simon Pagenaud all season, with Power prevailing this time.  Helio Castroneves will have another consistent year with several podiums.  Josef Newgarden appears to be adjusting well to his new team. Moving Tim Cindric to his car from Power’s car shows that Penske is putting Josef on an accelerated path to success. He may not win a race, but he should have a better season than Pagenaud did his first year at Penske.

It should be an interesting season. There are enough X-factors to provide some intrigue. Enjoy the first race next Sunday from beautiful St. Pete.

Here are my pre-season predictions, with apologies to all my picks. You don’t have a prayer now. These picks   are subject to change as the year goes on.

Season Championship-  Will Power

Indianapolis 500- Scott Dixon

First time winner- Mikhail Aleshin

Different race winners- 8