Primer for the 90th Anniversary 24 Hours of Le Mans

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This weekend marks the 90th anniversary of the 24 Hours of Le Mans, one of the most prestigious races worldwide. Here’s a few tidbits on what has made it what it is, and what to expect for this year’s running on June 22-23. A further resource guide with race times, schedules and a spotters guide, can be found on U.S. race broadcaster SPEED’s website.

THE HISTORY

Recently, it’s been about one name: Audi. The four rings showed up at Le Mans in this current iteration in 1999, and a year later with the R8, scored its first win. Since 2000, only in 2003 (Bentley) and 2009 (Peugeot), has Audi not tasted overall spoils. A year ago, its win with the R18 e-tron quattro was the first for a hybrid at Le Mans – this after they were the first diesel to win, as well (2006, R10 TDI).

It’s always been a technological proving ground. It’s been home to some of the greatest cars winning races, and some of the greatest drivers showcasing their worth. Tom Kristensen, “Mr. Le Mans,” leads all-time with eight wins. An American hasn’t won the race overall since 1996 (Davy Jones), but that has hardly diminished its stature.

Audi is five back of Porsche for most overall victories (it trails 16-11), but ahead of other manufacturers such as Ferrari, Jaguar, Bentley, Alfa Romeo and Ford.  Arguably one of the most famous Le Mans wins was that of A.J. Foyt and Dan Gurney in the Ford GT in 1967.

THE RACE

No longer merely a test of survival, Le Mans is a 24-hour sprint. Spend any substantial amount of time in the garage and you are pretty much toast when it comes to potential for class victory, or even a podium finish.

The 8.459-mile long Circuit de la Sarthe is known primarily for the Mulsanne Straight, and rewards cars that maximize the low downforce setup. There are very few slow corners on the track, other than Indianapolis (left-hander) and the following right-hander, Arnage.

THE CLASSES

56 cars compete in four classes. Here’s a primer on them below:

LMP1 (8 cars): The top class, comprised of factory prototype efforts from Audi and Toyota, two Rebellion Racing Lola Toyotas, and a single HPD ARX-03a from Strakka Racing. Bronze-rated drivers (the lowest-rated) are not allowed in class.

LMP2 (22 cars): Privateer, cost-capped second prototype class has Oreca, Zytek, Morgan, Lola, Lotus and HPD chassis, with engines provided by Nissan, HPD and Judd. Requires at least one Silver or Bronze-rated driver (the two lowest rated) and can have two pros.

GTE PRO (12 cars): Open, 2013-spec GT cars close to production from Ferrari, Corvette, Aston Martin, SRT and Porsche. Open driver lineup available although like in LMP1, only one team has a Silver-rated driver in its car.

GTE AM (14 cars): The same manufacturers as compete in GTE Pro, but privateer teams with 2012-spec cars. Only one pro driver (Platinum or Gold-rated) is allowed in the car, which makes this the class with the highest number of gentlemen drivers.

THE CONTENDERS

LMP1: As ever, it’s Audi’s to lose. Defending champions Andre Lotterer, Benoit Treluyer and Marcel Fassler seek their third consecutive win in the race. Toyota received a break from race organizers, the ACO, for an extra three liters of fuel ahead of this race. But whether Toyota’s TS030 Hybrid can claw back the performance gains to Audi remains to be seen.

LMP2: Roughly half of the 22 cars in class stand a serious chance at winning. OAK Racing (No. 24, 35 Morgan Nissans) and Greaves Motorsport (No. 41, 42 Zytek Nissans) each have two possible winners. Other cars to watch including G-Drive’s No. 26 Oreca Nissan, Level 5’s No. 33 HPD, JOTA Sport’s No. 38 Zytek Nissan, and the Oreca Nissans from Murphy Prototypes (No. 48) and Pecom Racing (No. 49). I’d expect the winner from that batch of 10.

GTE PRO: The pair of AF Corse Ferrari F458 Italias are probably the best all-around package in class and enters as defending race winner. But Aston Martin is primed to score a win with one of its three Vantages, and Corvette also stands a good chance in its last run with the C6.R. Porsche and SRT are slightly off, only because it’s debut for both the new 911 and Viper at Le Mans. JMW’s Ferrari is the only car without a chance.

GTE AM: Larbre Competition has won this class the last two years with older Corvettes, but about seven other cars have a realistic winning chance (No. 61, 81 Ferraris, No. 67, 76, 77 Porsches, No. 95, 96 Aston Martins).

 

Nearly 25 drivers already set for 2018 Indy 500… in mid-November

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Friday’s announcement that Danica Patrick would end her full-time driving career with a run in the 102nd Indianapolis 500, after also running the Daytona 500 in January, is another shot in the arm for the 2018 marquee event of North American open-wheel racing.

Surprisingly, it keeps the grid moving forward too to where nearly 75 percent of the 33 cars are already set… in mid-November, 2017.

Early confirmations of programs for the next year’s Indianapolis 500 aren’t new, but they’re seemingly coming earlier than normal this year, with a number of expected programs getting announced in the fall of 2017.

Coupled with the fact most of the IndyCar full-season grid for 2018 is set, it’s interesting to take a look at what’s already set for next year.

CONFIRMED FULL-SEASON (19)

The only things to add here are Dale Coyne Racing’s second driver in the No. 19 Honda, the road and street course driver for Ed Carpenter Racing in its No. 20 Chevrolet who may or may not be able to get an Indianapolis 500 extra seat in a third car, and the expected confirmation of Carlin’s graduation into IndyCar after three seasons in Indy Lights.

  • Team Penske (3, Chevrolet): Josef Newgarden, Simon Pagenaud, Will Power
  • Chip Ganassi Racing (2, Honda): Scott Dixon, Ed Jones
  • Andretti Autosport (4, Honda): Ryan Hunter-Reay, Alexander Rossi, Marco Andretti, Zach Veach
  • Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing (2, Honda): Graham Rahal, Takuma Sato
  • Schmidt Peterson Motorsports (2, Honda): James Hinchcliffe, Robert Wickens
  • Ed Carpenter Racing (2, Chevrolet): Spencer Pigot, Ed Carpenter (ovals)
  • A.J. Foyt Enterprises (2, Chevrolet): Tony Kanaan, Matheus Leist
  • Dale Coyne Racing (1, Honda): Sebastien Bourdais
  • Harding Racing (1, Chevrolet): Gabby Chaves

CONFIRMED PARTIAL SEASON/INDY ONLY (4)

  • Team Penske (1, Chevrolet): Helio Castroneves
  • Andretti Autosport (1, Honda): Stefan Wilson
  • Juncos Racing (1, TBD): Kyle Kaiser
  • Team TBD (1, TBD): Danica Patrick

Here’s where it gets interesting. Castroneves is Team Penske’s confirmed fourth, and Juan Pablo Montoya could be a hypothetical fifth if the stars align – but it’s not in the immediate plans at this moment.

Patrick also makes her somewhat surprising Indianapolis comeback and with Penske, Andretti Autosport and Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing not fielding her, the stars are aligned for her to drive with Chip Ganassi Racing in what would be a third car. Neither Patrick nor Ganassi said it’s happening today, but Ganassi acknowledged discussions, via NASCAR Talk.

Wilson finally gets his Indianapolis 500 shot with Andretti a year later as its fifth car. The team ran six last year, with the two Indy-only entries coming in separate partnership efforts between McLaren and Honda (Fernando Alonso) and Michael Shank Racing (Jack Harvey).

Jack Harvey is a very intriguing story for how he’ll be racing next year. NBC Sports understands a working relationship is being hatched between Shank and Schmidt Peterson Motorsports, and with Harvey bringing a program on behalf of AutoNation/SiriusXM to grow his role into a third-to-half season of racing, this could slot in nicely as SPM’s third car. While not “officially” confirmed, it would not be a surprise to see news revealed from the concerned parties in December.

How could Harvey become SPM three when SPM three was already announced, you ask? With the Calmels Sport with SPM program reportedly on thin ice after negative press, the unlikely union of the French team owner Didier Calmels, one-time open-wheel driver turned-sports car veteran Tristan Gommendy and SPM appears set to join the “announced and dropped before ever turning a wheel” club.

Kaiser’s four-race program with Juncos Racing was announced last month and the Indy Lights champion will likely have Chevrolet power, given the team’s existing relationship from 2017.

WHAT’S STILL TO COME

Playing it out a bit with the usual, “how many engines can each manufacturer provide” story, we know Honda ran 18 cars this year and was stretched to capacity, leaving Chevrolet with the remaining 15.

Work the math from here. Provided Carlin officially announces its entry (it still hasn’t to this point, but is known to have hired IndyCar personnel) and with Honda already stretched between its 12 previously announced full-season cars (4 Andretti, 2 Ganassi, 2 RLL, 2 SPM, 2 Coyne), with a 13th engine available at some races, Carlin would have to be at Chevrolet.

For Indianapolis, Honda already begins to work its car count further beyond those 13 (if SPM 3 gets added for more races) with Ganassi 3 (a TBD, but would be Patrick if confirmed here) and Andretti 5 (Wilson) to get to 15, which leaves just three leases at play to get to 18… again, this is in mid-November.

Provided Pippa Mann can work towards her annual appearance with Coyne, factor in a possible sixth Andretti car and an 18th Honda lease – perhaps a third car at RLL or fourth at Ganassi, SPM or Coyne – and suddenly the Honda inn would already be booked up.

Chevrolet would have the rest, and you can figure out the math from there.

It may only be mid-November, but the race to secure a berth on the grid for next May is already well underway.