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IMSA: Penske, Acura partnership progressing amid tough start

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The No. 7 Acura ARX-05 Acura Team Penske. Photo courtesy of IMSA

To say that the newly formed Acura Team Penske partnership in the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship had high expectations would be an understatement.

From the team aspect, there might not be an operation in existence that is more successful than Team Penske. And their return to IMSA last Fall was not exactly inconsequential - they took the pole at the Motul Petit Le Mans in October, their first sports car race since 2009.

On the driver front, the lineup in both the Nos. 6 and 7 entries represents a “Who’s Who” of talent from both IMSA and the Verizon IndyCar Series.

The No. 6 features Dane Cameron, a former IMSA Prototype champion, and Juan Montoya, a former IndyCar champion, Indianapolis 500 victor, and multiple-time race winner in the FIA Formula 1 World Championship and the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series. Add 2016 IndyCar champion Simon Pagenaud as a third driver in the endurance races, and you’d be hard-pressed to find a stronger driver lineup.

That is, until you look at the No. 7 entry. Former Rolex 24 winner and defending IMSA Prototype champion Ricky Taylor partners IndyCar star three-time Indianapolis 500 winner Helio Castroneves. Add in IndyCar stalwart Graham Rahal for the endurance races, and their lineup is no slouch, either.

And even though the ARX-05 is a new platform, it uses the same twin-turbo V6 from the NSX GT3, and the chassis is a variation of the Oreca 07, arguably the best of the LMP2 platforms.

The combination of team, drivers, and car has been very fast to start the year, with at least one of the Penske Acuras qualifying inside the Top 3 at every race, and both entries have led laps and ran amongst the leaders.

Yet, reliability has been their achilles heel - both entries fell out of contention at the Rolex 24 at Daytona after contact in separate incidents, and mechanical problems befell both entries within minutes of each other at the Mobil 1 12 Hours of Sebring.

They rebounded at the BUBBA Burger SportsCar Grand Prix at Long Beach, with Montoya taking the team’s first pole. But, strategy prevented Montoya and Cameron from contending for the win in the No. 6, while tire wear hampered the efforts of the No. 7 machine, with Ricky Taylor finding things especially problematic late in the race.

Still, as Art St. Cyr, president of Honda Performance Development (HPD) described, there are lots of reasons to be optimistic, and their speed right off the bat comes as no surprise.

“With the Acura DPi program, with the drivers that we have and the team that we have, we expected to come out of the gate being very competitive,” St. Cyr asserted. “We’ve been in sports car racing a lot. Team Penske has been in sports car racing a lot. We did a lot of testing. We did thousands and thousands of miles of testing getting ready for the season, so we thought we’d be competitive – at least in the mix – starting right off.”

Still, he knows there is lots of room for improvement, especially given that the program is still relatively new, and their reliability troubles are evidence of an obvious area that needs sharpening.

“We have shown early season speed, but obviously, there’s been some bugaboos or some gremlins that we’ve been tracking, which happens in sports car racing,” St. Cyr said. “We really look at every race and we expect to win every race that we’re in.”

St. Cyr is also enthused by the chance to prove the platform’s strength in IMSA, a series he holds in the highest regard.

“It’s fantastic,” St. Cyr said of the IMSA competition. “I mean, the whole series is just fantastic. This is all we’ve ever asked for is a chance to compete against these top teams. There’s top drivers, top teams and you’ve got to be on your game every week.”

He added, “I mean, we’ve showed that. You have a couple of problems and you’re relegated to the back of the field or not finishing. It’s made things very, very entertaining. It’s good for our Acura brand, because we want to compete against these vehicles on the production-car side as well. It’s very exciting for us and it’s very exciting for the Acura people to have this really close, tight competition.”

Acura Team Penske will look to break into the will column for the first time this weekend at the Acura Sports Car Challenge at Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course.