Heading into its debut season in the WeatherTech Championship at the beginning of this year, expectations for the two-car Acura Team Penske program and the new ARX-05 Daytona Prototype international (DPi) race cars were high. And with good reason.
After all, the driver lineup includes a pair of WeatherTech Championship Prototype champions racing alongside a pair of multiple-time Indianapolis 500 winners.
“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,” said Art St. Cyr, president of Honda Performance Development (HPD), which administers the program as the racing arm for both Acura Motorsports and Honda Racing in North America. “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.”
Both cars have been “in the mix,” in the first three races. An Acura DPi has qualified inside the top three positions in every race so far, including the program’s first pole position, which Juan Pablo Montoya earned in this month’s BUBBA burger Sports Car Grand Prix at Long Beach.
They’ve also led laps in all three races thus far. The No. 6 entry shared by two-time Indy 500 winner Montoya and 2016 WeatherTech Championship Prototype champion Dane Cameron on a full-time basis – with 2016 IndyCar champion Simon Pagenaud joining the team for endurance races – led multiple times in the Rolex 24 At Daytona and at Long Beach.
The No. 7 Acura DPi shared by 2017 Prototype champion Ricky Taylor and three-time Indy 500 winner Helio Castroneves for the full season – and by IndyCar star Graham Rahal in the enduros – also spent multiple stints out front in Daytona and in the Mobil 1 Twelve Hours of Sebring Presented by Advance Auto Parts.
But mechanical issues prevented either car from making it to the finish in the season-opening pair of endurance races. And in the Long Beach sprint race, race strategy prevented the No. 6 team from challenging for the win, while late-race traction was problematic for the No. 7 car.
“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.”
Next week, Acura Team Penske will expect to win the Acura Sports Car Classic at Mid-Ohio. While Long Beach was close to the Southern California headquarters for both Acura and HPD, next week’s race also could be considered a “home” race for the team owing to Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course’s close proximity to manufacturing facilities for both Honda and Acura.
So far in 2018, we’ve seen the No. 5 Mustang Sampling Cadillac DPi-V.R of Joao Barbosa and Filipe Albuquerque win two of the first three races, at Long Beach and the Rolex 24 (along with Christian Fittipaldi as endurance driver). The No. 22 Tequila Patrón ESM Nissan DPi of Johannes van Overbeek, Pipo Derani and Nicolas Lapierre took the Sebring victory.
In addition, the pair of Mazda RT-24P DPi cars fielded by Mazda Team Joest have shown considerable speed, especially in the past two races, while the No. 54 CORE autosport ORECA LM P2 car shared by Jon Bennett, Colin Braun, Romain Dumas and Loic Duval landed a podium spot at Daytona.
Again, the competition is tough in the Prototype class. But that’s all part of the appeal.
“It’s fantastic,” St. Cyr said. “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.
“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.”
In terms of battling for the Prototype championship, both Acura DPi cars have a steep hill to climb. The No. 6 is ninth in points, one point and one position ahead of the No. 7 team in 10th. The No. 6 team is 27 points behind the championship-leading No. 5 team. But don’t count them out just yet.
“I think, without a doubt, we can still be in the fight here,” St. Cyr said. “It’s really about being competitive every single week. You usually can get away with one, maybe two bad races, so we’ve really pulled out our mulligans here. It’s really about being competitive every single race moving forward, but we still think that we’re in this championship hunt.”