Montoya Samples Risi Ferrari in IMSA Championship Sebring Test

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One day after IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship star Ricky Taylor sampled a Team Penske IndyCar at Homestead-Miami Speedway, a Team Penske IndyCar driver took advantage of the opportunity to drive a WeatherTech Championship car 180 miles up the road at Sebring International Raceway.

Juan Pablo Montoya, a two-time Indianapolis 500 winner and 1999 CART champion, joined the Risi Competizione team for the second day of a two-day, IMSA-sanctioned test at Sebring. The Risi team was focused on preparations for the Mobil 1 Twelve Hours of Sebring Fueled by Fresh From Florida on March 18, as well as the remainder of the 2017 WeatherTech Championship season, with regular drivers Toni Vilander and James Calado in the GT Le Mans (GTLM) class.

However, the 41-year-old Colombian got his first turn behind the wheel of the No. 62 Ferrari 488 GTE shortly after the lunch break Friday afternoon. And while Montoya has turned plenty of laps on the portion of the Sebring circuit that runs from Turns 3 to 13 around the area known as Green Park, he hadn’t previously run on the full, 3.74-mile, 17-turn circuit that utilizes former concrete runways from what was Hendricks Field – an Army Air Force training base – in the 1940s. 

“It’s fun,” Montoya said. “It’s different. I only ran, probably, eight laps just to get the hang of it a little and I’m going to try to get in a little bit later. It’s fun. I’ve never really run the big track. It’s pretty bumpy.”

Montoya has driven and won races in a number of different race cars over his storied career, including IndyCars, Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series cars and Formula 1 machinery, as well as Prototype sports cars. However, the Ferrari was a different experience.

“Prototypes drive more like an open-wheel car,” he explained. “This is very different. There’s a lot of pitch movement in the cars, it’s kind of tricky. It’s very easy to get it wrong. It’s like, you go in one time and it’s like, ‘Oh, it turns.’ The next time you go in, it doesn’t and the next time you go in, it goes smooth. It’s very hard to be consistent.”

Montoya’s only racing commitment thus far in 2017 is the quest for a third Indianapolis 500 victory in May as part of a five-car assault from Team Penske after winning the 2015 race for the team. So, would he be interested in racing the Risi Ferrari?

“If they would let me, yeah,” he said. “But I don’t know if they’d let me.”

The Risi team already has confirmed plans to field the No. 62 entry for Vilander, Calado and Italian driver Giancarlo Fisichella at Sebring, with Vilander and Fisichella expected to be the team’s full-time drivers in the WeatherTech Championship.

As for potential other sports car racing prospects for Montoya, he says, “Time will tell.”

FRANCHITTI MAKES SEBRING RETURN IN MAZDA DPi: Marino Franchitti couldn’t walk very far down the pit lane at Sebring International Raceway on Thursday morning on the first day of the two-day IMSA-sanctioned test without somebody stopping him to shake hands or give him a hug to welcome him back to the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship paddock.

The 38-year-old younger brother of multi-time Indy 500 and IndyCar champion Dario Franchitti hasn’t raced in the WeatherTech Championship since a GT Daytona (GTD) class start in a Fall-Line Motorsports Audi at VIRginia International Raceway in 2014. He will return to competition next month in the Mobil 1 Twelve Hours of Sebring Fueled by Fresh From Florida as part of a three-driver lineup in the No. 70 Mazda Motorsports RT-24P Daytona Prototype international (DPi) car alongside co-drivers Tom Long and Joel Miller. He tested the car extensively Friday with Long and Miller.

“It feels like coming home,” Marino Franchitti said. “Although I’m a European driver, I’m an American racer. I spent so many years racing over here, that to be away from it felt very strange and to be back feels really, really nice. It’s great to see so many old friends and it’s just nice to be back on track here at Sebring.

“Obviously, since the last time I competed in the series, the classes have evolved, GTD has evolved and we now have one top combined class with the DPis and it’s really cool to get out there and drive one of these new cars. They’re just as good as they look. They’re nice.”

The last time Franchitti competed in the Mobil 1 Twelve Hours of Sebring in 2014, he brought home a victory for Chip Ganassi Racing in a Ford-Riley Daytona Prototype with co-drivers Scott Pruett and Memo Rojas. That was Franchitti’s second consecutive Sebring victory, as he won the American Le Mans Series LM P2 class in 2013 alongside Ryan Briscoe and Scott Tucker in a Level 5 Motorsports Honda prototype.

“It’s always been a special place for me,” Franchitti says. “I’ve always loved being here and loved driving here. We’ve had some good results over the years, so it’s nice to come back. It’s such a challenging track.

“When you’re working with a new car as we are here at Mazda, it’s really cool to get out there and to explore the car. The car has not done a massive amount of testing, although it raced at Daytona. It’s really cool to get out here and put more miles on it and explore the car. Testing and development is something I love doing. It’s just been a lot of fun.”

Franchitti is hopeful of even more fun when he and the team return for the race next month. It’s his only scheduled WeatherTech Championship start so far in 2017, but it’s clear he’s hungry for more.

“We’ll see where it goes, but I’m definitely keen to be back here racing in America full time,” he said. “I don’t think that’s going to happen this year, but definitely something I’m looking to do.”

ALEGRA MOTORSPORTS BRINGS MOMENTUM FROM ROLEX VICTORY TO SEBRING: It’s been a whirlwind month for the Alegra Motorsports team.

Nearly four weeks ago, the No. 28 Porsche 911 GT3 R driven by Michael Christensen, Jesse Lazare, Daniel Morad and the father-son duo of Carlos and Michael de Quesada pulled out a stunning victory at the Rolex 24 At Daytona.

The win was a surprise to many as the GT Daytona (GTD) class was stacked with experienced racers and new manufacturers, but for Alegra Motorsports, it wasn’t quite so unexpected.

Christensen enters his third year as a Porsche factory driver. Lazare dominated and won the 2016 IMSA Porsche GT3 Cup Challenge USA by Yokohama Platinum Cup championship. Morad was the 2016 Porsche North American Cup and Ultra 94 Porsche GT3 Cup Challenge Canada by Yokohama champion. Carlos de Quesada won the 2007 Rolex 24 At Daytona in GT, and his son, Michael, took the 2016 driver title in the Porsche GT3 Gold Cup Championship.

Stellar resume for a team who slipped under the radar.

“You can say it’s a Cinderella story,” Carlos de Quesada said. “I just don’t want people thinking that it’s going to continue to be a Cinderella story. This could be the story of a great team coming out with great crew members and great drivers and running the best manufacturer out there in Porsche and being competitive.”

While the excitement from their Rolex win may never fade, the team is also ready to get back to work. The No. 28 returned to the track this week for the two-day IMSA test at Sebring International Raceway. The elder de Quesada logged laps with Morad and 2015 IMSA Continental Tire SportsCar Challenge Street Tuner (ST) champion Spencer Pumpelly, who played a pivotal coaching role for the team at Daytona.

“Yes, we won Daytona but now we’re focused on Sebring,” de Quesada said. “Just like we went into Daytona, we’re coming here to be competitive. We’re not out there to run circles. We’re not out there to be a back runner. Our goal, like any race we go into, is to win the race. We’re not going to let up on that.”

Adding Pumpelly has also been a huge benefit for the team. The veteran IMSA driver reconnected with former colleague Larry Hahn, now Alegra engineer, at the Roar Before the Rolex 24 looking for a ride. Hahn reintroduced Pumpelly and de Quesada, who raced against each other in ALMS and GRAND-AM in the early 2000s. Even though Alegra already had finalized its driver lineup for the Rolex, the team was eager to use Pumpelly as a strategist.

“They gave me pretty free rein to do what I wanted to strategy-wise, more so than I thought they would,” Pumpelly said with a laugh. “I finally got to run the race the way I thought it should be run, my philosophy on how to run the 24. We had a really good car that Larry put together, our drivers were fantastic, all the pit work by every guy that went over the wall was amazing. It was cool to see my theory on how it should be run put us in position to win and watch these guys go take it.”

Pumpelly already fit in quickly to Alegra’s way of doing things- he clocked the quickest lap in GTD during Thursday’s afternoon test session with a time of 2:03.172. It also helps that he’s driving a car he’s very familiar with.

“The majority of my career has been in 911s, so to get back in the car and get back to what I feel is most comfortable for me is good,” Pumpelly said. “”Anytime you run with anyone as good as these guys, you want to perform to their level and this is the first time that I’ve really gotten to push the GT3 hard. There’s pressure, for sure, but these guys are doing everything they can to make it as easy as possible.”

Alegra Motorsports is expected to announce its driver lineup for the Mobil 1 Twelve Hours of Sebring Fueled by Fresh From Florida soon, with the race being held on March 18.