Le Mans: GTE stunners and spoilers

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Some classes are more wide open than others in this year’s 24 Hours of Le Mans field. Here’s a look at likely contenders for the GTE-Pro and the GTE-Am class victories:

FULL ENTRY LIST

GTE-Pro: Porsche and Ferrari have the slightest of edges over Aston Martin, with Corvette lurking with its new C7.R.

  • AF Corse Ferrari: The No. 51 (Gianmaria Bruni/Toni Vilander/Giancarlo Fisichella) edges the No. 71 (Davide Rigon/James Calado/Olivier Beretta) on pace and experience, and overall in GTE-Pro, it’s hard to find a better driver lineup than the No. 51. But will the F458 Italia have the outright pace?
  • Porsche Team Manthey: Both the No. 91 and 92 lineups are stacked, as are the 991-spec 911s. Frederic Makowiecki has the ability for a star turn in the No. 92 after departing from Aston Martin, and co-driver Marco Holzer is another one to watch. The No. 91 features the more veteran trio of Patrick Pilet, Jorg Bergmeister and Nick Tandy, although Tandy’s in only his second Le Mans, and first in a factory seat.
  • Aston Martin Racing No. 97: Just the Darren Turner/Stefan Mucke/Bruno Senna car has a shot this race, and a win would make three different manufacturers on top in GTE-Pro in as many FIA World Endurance Championship races this year (Porsche and Ferrari have split the first two).
  • Corvette Racing: Either of the two new C7.Rs seek a bounce back from a miserable 2013. Staying out of the garage remains key as ever and the Corvette contingent isn’t exactly sure where it stacks up on straight line speed. But the veteran savvy and winning legacy of the team endures, and will no doubt keep at least one of the two cars in contention until the morning.

Ram Racing’s No. 52, in the team’s Le Mans debut and the Craft-Bamboo No. 99 AMR entry are seriously unlikely to fit into the equation.

GTE-Am: Like LMP2, hard to project an exact winner, but a Ferrari’s a good bet with 11 of the 19 cars entered in class.

  • Ram Racing No. 53: As solid a lineup as can be assembled within the GTE-Am regulations. Johnny Mowlem, Mark Patterson and Archie Hamilton are a podium-contending trio.
  • Krohn Racing: A bit of a Jekyll and Hyde at Le Mans in terms of performance and reliability; Krohn was the last and latest entry into this year’s field but could well finish strongly if they stay out of trouble.
  • AF Corse No. 61, 81: The two WEC-entered AF Corse Ferrari F458 Italias have better lineups than the primarily gentlemen No. 60 and 62 cars. The No. 81 includes rising star Sam Bird and must be watched closely.
  • JMW Motorsport: The mix of the JMW squad with Flying Lizard elements (Thomas Blam and Eric Ingraham for strategy plus Spencer Pumpelly and Seth Neiman driving) is a good one. Podium’s very much possible for the No. 66, ironically, Pumpelly’s old number at TRG back in the day.
  • Prospeed Competition: Both the No. 75 and 79 are the 2012-spec 997-based 911 GT3 RSR, which is one of the most proven GTE cars at Le Mans. Markus Palttala is the driver to watch in the No. 75; the No. 79 features Jeroen Bleekemolen.
  • Dempsey Racing/Proton Competition: Both the No. 77 and 88 are the newer 2013-spec 991-based 911s, and either’s a podium contender. Dempsey Racing is particularly motivated to podium, if not win, after just missing out in 2013.
  • 8Star Motorsports: Decent lineup of Frankie Montecalvo, Gianluca Roda and Paolo Ruberti could be a podium contender.
  • Aston Martin Racing: A win for the No. 95, the all-Danish crew of Kristian Poulsen, David Heinemeier Hansson and Nicki Thiim is the emotional favorite a year after Allen Simonsen lost his life in that car. The sister No. 98 of Paul Dalla Lana, Pedro Lamy and Christoffer Nygaard is also as strong a lineup as can occur within the class.

Of the rest, I’m not expecting too much from Team Sofrev ASP, both older Imsa Performance Matmut cars and the Team Taisan and SMP Ferraris. Yes, the No. 76 Imsa car won last year in GTE-Am, but much for 2014 will be determined on how well Nicolas Armindo can bring along the other two in that car.

Mercedes continuing to explore Formula E, October deadline on entry

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GENEVA, Switzerland – Mercedes has until October to make a final decision on entering the FIA Formula E championship and activating its option for a place on the grid in season five, when it would have to be a customer team.

Mercedes announced last October that it had secured an option on a place in Formula E from season five, becoming the latest manufacturer to express its serious interest in the all-electric series.

No updates have been forthcoming from Mercedes regarding its Formula E interest since then, although a number of personnel are understood to have attended the recent Berlin race as it continues to evaluate the series.

When asked by NBC Sports about Mercedes’ Formula E plans at the FIA Sport Conference in Geneva earlier this week, head of Mercedes-Benz motorsport Toto Wolff confirmed that an evaluation was still ongoing ahead of an October deadline to trigger its option.

“We are exploring Formula E at the moment and try to form an educated opinion,” Wolff said.

“It is something that is very different, although I think they’ve done a great job in establishing the series in a couple of years only.

“We are in a fact-finding moment and we will make up our mind until October.”

Mercedes missed the deadline to join Formula E in season five (2018/19) as a manufacturer, with nine companies being listed by the series back in March.

Should Mercedes want to enter Formula E in season five, it would have to do so as a customer team, enjoying a powertrain supply from another manufacturer.

“The rules are what they are. If we decide to enter Formula E, we will be a customer team in season five,” Wolff said.

“There’d be no other solution.”

Verstappen quickest in opening Azerbaijan GP practice

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Max Verstappen led Red Bull Racing to a one-two finish in the opening Formula 1 practice session ahead of this weekend’s Azerbaijan Grand Prix, finishing half a second clear of teammate Daniel Ricciardo at the top of the FP1 standings.

Verstappen and Ricciardo were able to make the most of low grip conditions at the Baku City Circuit through first practice, with a number of their rivals finding things more difficult and struggling to keep their cars on-track.

Verstappen recorded a fastest lap time of 1:44.410 in the Red Bull RB13 to take P1 overall, finishing four-tenths of a second clear of Ricciardo.

Sebastian Vettel took third place for Ferrari, half a second down on Verstappen at the front after squeezing a late lap in before a red flag stoppage in the closing stages of the session.

FP1 was halted when Sergio Perez became the first driver to crash at the tight Turn 8 section, carrying too much speed into the corner and clouting the barrier with his Force India car.

Despite the shunt, Perez ended the session fourth ahead of Mercedes’ Lewis Hamilton, who failed to challenge the front-runners at the head of the field, finishing over a second behind Verstappen.

Valtteri Bottas was sixth in the second Mercedes ahead of Esteban Ocon and Felipe Massa, with Kimi Raikkonen and Daniil Kvyat rounding out the top 10.

Second practice in Baku begins at 9am ET live on the NBC Sports app before being re-aired on NBCSN at 2pm ET.

Road America weekend, Thursday notes

Brett Hundley with Will Power and Mario Andretti. Photo: IndyCar
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ELKHART LAKE, Wis. – It’s a busy day of testing, practice and qualifying for all the series not named the Verizon IndyCar Series on Thursday at the KOHLER Grand Prix weekend.

IndyCar sessions begin on Friday and as such there wasn’t meant to be as much to report on that end… until late Thursday afternoon when Schmidt Peterson Motorsports confirmed Mikhail Aleshin’s temporary absence and Robert Wickens to fill in.

Meanwhile with Esteban Gutierrez having been confirmed for the rest of the season at Dale Coyne Racing, it’s anticipated he will have his first oval test next week at Iowa Speedway, to have his first running on an oval ahead of the July 9 Iowa Corn 300.

Here’s a couple other IndyCar notes…

DIXON’S SURPRISE TO A YOUNG FAN

Advance Auto Parts IndyCar Radio Network reporter Jake Query, who will also be hosting this weekend’s Indy Lights coverage from Road America on NBCSN, found a fan letter from a young girl named Lucy addressed to INDYCAR after Scott Dixon’s wild ride at the Indianapolis 500. Lucy proceeded to thank INDYCAR for its safety efforts in keeping Dixon intact.

Well, between the efforts of Query and the IndyCar PR staff, a meeting between the two was arranged. You can see the video of that, below.

PACKERS QB TAKES A RIDE WITH MARIO

Not that Packers QB though.

Green Bay Packers backup quarterback Brett Hundley had a ride today with Mario Andretti in Honda’s Fastest Seat in Sports, the two-seat IndyCar. He posted on it below.

Elsewhere, here is a bit more from the Mazda Road to Indy presented by Cooper Tires and Pirelli World Challenge ranks.

MRTI

  • First practice is in the books for USF2000 and rather than Oliver Askew being on top for Cape Motorsports, it was actually the Pabst Racing team that went 1-2-3 with Dutchman Rinus VeeKay ahead of Guyana driver Calvin Ming and Brazilian Lucas Kohl. Not bad for Augie Pabst’s Oconomowoc, Wis.-based team. Askew was fourth, and David Malukas was an impressive fifth. Full results are here.
  • In first qualifying for Pro Mazda, Juncos Racing’s Victor Franzoni took the pole with a best time of 2:06.5835, ahead of Cape Motorsports’ Anthony Martin at 2:07.9055. Team Pelfrey’s trio of Carlos Cunha, TJ Fischer and Nikita Lastochkin completed the top five. Full results are here.
  • Overall, the USF2000 field grows by one from the projected 18 up to 19 with F4 driver Jacob Loomis moving up to Team Pelfrey’s No. 82 Tatuus USF-17 Mazda, filling in for Ayla Agren. Agren’s full-season teammates Robert Megennis and Kaylen Frederick paid tribute to Agren, who is still here this weekend, with tribute cool shirts.
  • Meanwhile the Pro Mazda field dips by two. Neither Phillippe Denes, who was seventh in points heading into the weekend, nor Kevin Davis is here. It leaves the field at 15 cars, including series debutantes Kris Wright (who has tested with JDC Motorsports), Dave Zavelson and Kevin Bury. Zavelson’s car number switches from 4, listed initially, to 2.
  • Max Hanratty, who returns, has a new livery on his No. 6 ArmsUp Motorsports entry.
  • Anthony Martin is confident any issues with his Cape Motorsports Pro Mazda car at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course have been sorted. The Australian proved that point by leading the opening practice session with a best time of 2:13.1661 in mixed conditions. Full times from that are linked here.
  • The reduced USF2000 field sees a couple drivers here who may be back later this year but others who may be done for the year. Agren, out at Team Pelfrey this weekend, is here and working towards a return later this season. Her past teammate at Pelfrey, Luke Gabin, is also here and is unsure whether he’ll be back in action for Exclusive Autosport.
  • Meanwhile Darren Keane, who makes his debut with Newman Wachs Racing in USF2000 this weekend, is expected to return to the team for remaining races. He’ll miss Iowa Speedway but plans to return at Mid-Ohio. Ozz Negri coaches Keane in USF2000; Tom Dyer, another Acura NSX GT3 driver, coaches the Pelfrey USF2000 drivers.

PWC

  • The PWC grid drops by a couple this week with a couple changes in the GT and GTA ranks. Bentley Team Absolute is down to one car with Yufeng Luo not here in his No. 78 Bentley Continental GT3, leaving only Adderly Fong. Fong, however, will miss the Mid-Ohio weekend owing to a schedule clash with the China GT Championship. Pablo Perez Companc, who was also due to race in GTA in the No. 69 Mercedes-AMG GT3, is another no-show this weekend.
  • K-PAX Racing has eclipsed the 100-podium plateau in recent rounds. The team’s three-car lineup resumes this weekend with Alvaro Parente, Bryan Sellers and Mike Hedlund, Parente and Hedlund having just returned from the 24 Hours of Le Mans.
  • Austin Versteeg makes his debut in the GTS class No. 13 ANSA Motorsports KTM X-BOW GT4, a car that’s won this season in the hands of Nico Jamin. Jamin is here this weekend in his Andretti Autosport Indy Lights car.
  • PWC had several test and practice sessions during the day.

Wickens set to substitute for Aleshin until further notice at Road America

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ELKHART LAKE, Wis. – Robert Wickens will temporarily fill in for Mikhail Aleshin at this weekend’s KOHLER Grand Prix at Road America.

The Schmidt Peterson Motorsports team released a statement on Thursday afternoon confirming Aleshin’s absence for at least Friday owing to immigration issues, with that potentially set to stretch into the remainder of the weekend if the situation is not resolved.

The statement is below.

Hinchcliffe has also posted a tweet going into the weekend. The two participated in a ride-swap earlier this year where Wickens made his IndyCar test debut at Sebring (recap here) and Hinchcliffe ran in Wickens’ DTM car in Italy after the St. Petersburg opener (recap here).

The two drivers were teammates in A1 Grand Prix about a decade ago; Wickens has race experience at Road America as he finished seventh in a Formula Atlantic race in 2007. Hinchcliffe was 14th in the same race.

Beyond his DTM commitments, Wickens raced in this year’s Rolex 24 at Daytona with Starworks Motorsport, and ran 100 laps during the week in a PC class Oreca FLM09 he shared with a handful of others. Conor Daly and Sean Rayhall were among the notables in the other car.