The weather was hot for the first day of the GoPro Sonoma Grand Prix weekend at Sonoma Raceway for the season’s finale IndyCar race. A gentle breeze didn’t do much to cut the 91 F degree temperatures. And, as often is the case, it changed direction from morning to afternoon.
The atmosphere was muted this weekend after the tragic accident of British driver, Justin Wilson, who was racing No.25 Andretti Autosport Honda last weekend at Pocono. Wilson died Monday night from injuries sustained when his helmet was hit by a flying piece of debris from the crashing car of Rookie Sage Karem/No.8 Chevrolet. Karen sustained minor injuries – sore, bruised foot.
Tributes at the track and on social media were many and varied for the gentle giant, a much-beloved member of the IndyCar community. The drivers were full of fond memories and praise for the character and talent of Wilson, who had been selected by the drivers to represent them in the Driver’s Association. They all agreed the best (and toughest) thing to do was get back into the car and race this weekend. Best medicine.
Twenty-five IndyCar drivers are entered for Sunday’s feature race, including Oriol Servia of Spain who is driving the No.25 Andretti Autosport Honda, formerly driven by Wilson. The two drivers were close friends, and Servia said “This is the most difficult quote I have ever had to make, The situation is so difficult, on so many levels for obvious reasons, that it’s hard for the words to come out the right way. I am honored and emotional with the opportunity of driving his car this weekend. I want to thank my friends at Andretti Autosport for the opportunity, and I want to express how deeply touched I am by the desire of Julia, Stefan and all the Wilson family to have me driving the No. 25.”
Stefan Wilson, Justin’s younger brother said “As a family, we can not imagine a better person to race in Justin’s honor than Oriol. His path and Justin’s crossed in many different ways through the years. As a competitor, and also as a person, he carries Justin’s spirit well, and we know that Justin would approve.”
A couple of other IndyCar driver changes include veteran Sebastien Saavedra who will drive the No.8 AFS Ganassi Racing Chevrolet – who has alternated this season with young Karem. Karen drove the majority of the races, with Saavedra running four, road and street courses. Both ran the Indianapolis 500. The other driver change is Rookie Roberto Gonzalez in No.18 Dale Coyne Racing Honda. This car had been driven by a variety of drivers throughout the season, and the Dale Coyne team is the one for whom Wilson raced the past two years.
Also on the program for this three-day weekend is the Pirelli World Challenge Series, which has 64 entries in the four classes. There are 17 GT cars, 12 GTA’s, eight GT Cup cars, and 27 GTS cars. This is the penultimate round for the SCCA Pro Racing Series.
Rounding out the bill is the Formula Car Challenge Series, which is the Official Feeder Series in the Mazda Road to Indy program. Two of the successful graduates of this series are racing IndyCars this weekend. The 2014 Indy Lights Champion, Gabby Chaves, who is running for IndyCar Rookie of the Year racing No.98 Bowers & Wilkins/Curb Honda for BHA Racing; and Tristan Vautier, who is running the No.19 Dale Coyne Honda this weekend and also raced in the Rolex 24 Hours of Daytona.
The Friday schedule called for practice sessions for all series, plus qualifying and a race for the Formula Car Challenge. IndyCar’s one practice session is three and a half hours starting at 2:30pm, the last on-track group for the day.
Cabot Bigham, racing in the PRO FM class of the Formula Car Challenge Series, won the Friday race after qualifying third. He had also been the fastest in the morning practice. Finishing second in the race was pole sitter, Hunter Pickett, who also races in the PFM category. His qualifying lap was 1:33.922. PFM driver Stan Kohls finished third. Prior to the race, Pickett was leading the PFM standings. He is the grandson of veteran championship driver, Greg Pickett.
The PWC drivers had two separate sessions for the large field. Fastest in the GTS Category in Practice One was Renger van_der_Zande/No.31 EFFORT Racing/World PMO Porsche 911 GT3R at 1:33.919/91.419 mph. His teammate, Rookie Michael Lewis/No.41 was fastest in the second practice for the group, with van_der_Zande coming in second.
In the PWC GT/GTA/GT Cup categories, veteran champion driver, Jack Baldwin/No.73 GTS GTSport Racing Porsche Cayman S set a new track record at 1:42.264/83.959 mph. Every driver was faster than the record in the field of 34 cars. In the second practice, Mark Wilkins/No.38 GTS PutOnTheBrakes.Org KIA Optima was fastest at 1:41.874/84.280 mph. He also was fastest than the existing track record, as were all24 drivers in that session.
One change in the track added for this race is the new Pit Lane Catch Fence along the tarmac facing the garages. It had been installed for the NASCAR race in June, but it interfered with the Timing & Scoring system and was taken down, and then reinstalled for this weekend.