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Le Mans: Prototype 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 overall win from LMP1 (well, one of seven cars) and the LMP2 class victory:

FULL ENTRY LIST

LMP1: Energy usage is the biggest key although outright pace is still very close between the three manufacturer entries. Toyota enters with a slight edge over Audi and Porsche.

  • Audi: Despite taking 12 of the last 14 Le Mans victories, Audi is not the favorite at this year’s race. A newish driving lineup across the board leaves Tom Kristensen, “Mr. Le Mans,” as the sole veteran with his nine career wins. The second car of Marcel Fassler/Andre Lotterer/Benoit Treluyer has a pair of Le Mans wins and is poised for a bounce back; I’d rate the No. 2 just ahead of the No. 1 (Kristensen/Loic Duval/Lucas di Grassi) with the newish No. 3 finding their footing (Felipe Albuquerque/Marco Bonanomi/Oliver Jarvis) and looking for a podium.
  • Toyota: It feels like this is their year, in year three of the program, similar to Peugeot in 2009. Winners of the first two FIA World Endurance Championship races this year, and now with two years of Le Mans data to work off of, should be much better prepared for this go-around. Either the No. 7 or No. 8 would be a popular winner; there’s a Frenchman apiece in the driver lineup.
  • Porsche: Rare is it that Porsche isn’t considered a favorite for a race it’s entered in, either, but, it’s not the favorite at Le Mans. A pair of finishes and perhaps a podium finish would be an achievable goal; anything more than that is a bonus.

Rebellion Racing – God bless them – fight the fight as the sole LMP1-L privateer. With two new cars, merely finishing is the goal. For this year, anyway.

LMP2: Always the most wide-open class; odds are good a Nissan-engined car will win (with 13 of the 17 cars in class) but which one is a different question altogether.

  • G-Drive Racing: Two-for-two to open the FIA World Endurance Championship season, G-Drive’s No. 26 Morgan Nissan features the underrated superstar in Olivier Pla alongside the solid pair of Roman Rusinov and Julien Canal. A three-peat is possible but will be tougher to achieve in a 17-car field, compared to four or five cars in the first two races.
  • Race Performance: Here’s my top wild card entry: The No. 34 Oreca 03 Judd of Michel Frey, Franck Mailleux and Jon Lancaster was sixth at the Le Mans test day and are three very decent shoes paired with a Le Mans-tested car. A podium is possible here, if not more.
  • Signatech Alpine: Strong driver lineup of Oliver Webb, Nelson Panciatici and Paul-Loup Chatin and one of the best looking cars certainly with the blue No. 36 Alpine A450 Nissan.
  • Jota Sport, Greaves Motorsport: Another two cars in the “handy package” category, the Zytek Z11SN Nissan is spread across these three entries. Jota’s trio of Marc Gene, Harry Tincknell and Simon Dolan is a better bet for success in the No. 38 than either of the Greaves cars, although the No. 42 for Greaves will have plenty of eyes on it with 16-year-old Matt McMurry set to become the youngest driver in race history. The sister No. 41 is less likely to factor in as the only car with three first-time drivers.
  • Thiriet by TDS Racing, OAK Racing: The lineup of Tristan Gommendy, Ludovic Badey and Pierre Thiriet is a good one; my concern here is the team’s No. 46 is the new Ligier JS P2 chassis paired with a Nissan. Debut victories are a hard one to come by and I’m not convinced this car – or the other two Ligiers run by OAK Racing and OAK Racing Team Asia – will avoid the garage enough to stay in contention.
  • KCMG: The Hong Kong-entered team, now running an Oreca 03 Nissan, has a good car but an unproven driver lineup at Le Mans in Matthew Howson, Richard Bradley and Alexandre Imperatori. Fast enough, but will their car/heads last?
  • Murphy Prototypes: Another Oreca 03 Nissan bound to be quick but featuring an inexperienced lineup. Karun Chandhok may be able to push the other two debutantes, open-wheel veterans Nathaniel Berthon and Rodolfo Gonzalez.

Too many variables exist to me beyond these eight entries. Sebastien Loeb Racing has a pair of first-time drivers and is a first-time team; SMP Racing is a first-time team with too many gentlemen drivers; Larbre Competition and Newblood by Morand are likely to be weighed down by their gentlemen drivers; and Pegasus Racing makes up the numbers.

Lastly of course is the Garage 56 Nissan ZEOD RC, the electric prototype which seeks to run its first lap on all-electric power and be the first car in Le Mans history to achieve that feat. A race finish is unlikely, but experimentation is awesome.

Tire woes leave Haas down the grid in Russia

SOCHI, RUSSIA - APRIL 30: Romain Grosjean of France driving the (8) Haas F1 Team Haas-Ferrari VF-16 Ferrari 059/5 turbo comes back onto the track during qualifying for the Formula One Grand Prix of Russia at Sochi Autodrom on April 30, 2016 in Sochi, Russia.  (Photo by Dan Istitene/Getty Images)
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Tire woes throughout practice and qualifying for the Russian Grand Prix left Haas Formula 1 drivers Romain Grosjean and Esteban Gutierrez down the grid ahead of Sunday’s race in Sochi.

NASCAR team co-owner Gene Haas saw his eponymous F1 operation come back down to earth in China two weeks ago when its run of points finishes since debut came to an end.

Grosjean and Gutierrez arrived in Russia hopeful of getting back into the top 10, but both struggled to get temperature into their tires throughout qualifying.

Low temperatures and a green track surface hit all of the teams hard in Sochi, yet Haas seemed more affected than others as Grosjean and Gutierrez qualified 15th and 16th respectively.

“It’s been a complicated weekend so far for us,” Grosjean said. “We’ve been struggling with the grip and the car. It’s difficult to get the tire to work on such a smooth asphalt. We’re progressing, we’re learning and doing the most we can do.

“I still don’t have the feeling I used to have earlier in the season with the car. We really need to analyze that. Then tomorrow’s going to be a long race with a lot of fuel saving. The tires are hard to keep in the window, so it’s going to be challenging for everyone.

“Maybe we can try to be a bit more clever. Let’s do our best, let’s analyse and let’s keep having some interesting data. We’ll see where we are after the race.”

Gutierrez enters Sunday’s race still chasing his first F1 points since the 2013 Japanese Grand Prix, and admitted that Haas needs a few surprises to be in with a chance of reaching the top 10.

“Qualifying was pretty hard. It was difficult to get the tires to work here so it’s been a bit of a challenge,” Gutierrez said.

“I was doing my best, with all the options we have available, to maximize everything but I’m not really satisfied with the result.

“However, we still have a race to do tomorrow. Hopefully a few surprises may come our way that will give us a chance to be up in the points.

“It’s probably not going to be very straightforward, as the pace is not as good as we want it to be, but we will definitely push hard and do our best to get there.”

The Russian Grand Prix is live on CNBC and Live Extra from 7am ET on Sunday.

Lowe: Mercedes let Hamilton down

SOCHI, RUSSIA - APRIL 30: Lewis Hamilton of Great Britain and Mercedes GP in the garage during final practice ahead of the Formula One Grand Prix of Russia at Sochi Autodrom on April 30, 2016 in Sochi, Russia.  (Photo by Dan Istitene/Getty Images)
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Mercedes Formula 1 technical chief Paddy Lowe says that the team let Lewis Hamilton down after he suffered a power unit failure for the second race weekend in a row during qualifying for the Russian Grand Prix on Saturday.

Hamilton was forced to start last in China two weeks ago after an issue on his power unit prevented him from posting a time during qualifying.

Although he did take part in both Q1 and Q2 on Saturday in Russia, a repeat of the issue on the same power unit meant that Hamilton could not run in Q3.

As a result, Hamilton will start 10th on the grid for the start in Sochi – and only if Mercedes makes no changes to his car.

While teammate and championship leader Nico Rosberg was able to sweep to pole position, Hamilton was left to prepare for yet another fightback drive on Sunday.

“Our day has been tainted by a failure which deprived Lewis of a shot at pole – and deprived the fans of what would surely have been a thrilling climax to an immensely close battle between our two drivers,” Lowe said after the session.

“We’ve let Lewis down for the second weekend in a row, so our apologies go to him once again. It’s a cruel twist of fate that, out of eight Mercedes-Benz Power Units on the grid, the problem should befall the same driver twice.

“We’ve been working very hard over the past couple of weeks to understand what happened in China – but unfortunately there is clearly still more work to be done.

“Our focus for the immediate future, however, is on making sure Lewis’ car is in the best possible condition for tomorrow’s race to give him the best chance of making the kind of strong recovery we’ve seen him pull off so many times in the past.”

The Russian Grand Prix is live on CNBC from 7am ET on Sunday.

Hamilton reprimanded for Russia qualifying misdemeanor

SOCHI, RUSSIA - APRIL 29: Lewis Hamilton of Great Britain and Mercedes GP in the Paddock during practice for the Formula One Grand Prix of Russia at Sochi Autodrom on April 29, 2016 in Sochi, Russia.  (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)
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Lewis Hamilton has been given a reprimand by the FIA stewards for failing to follow the race director’s instructions during qualifying for the Russian Grand Prix on Saturday.

Ahead of the weekend at the Sochi Autodrom, FIA race director Charlie Whiting had a white bollard placed in the run-off area at Turn 2 to guide drivers where to go if they ran wide at the corner.

The idea was used successfully in Canada last year, and forces drivers to pass through the ‘penalty zone’ that ensures they do not gain an advantage by running wide.

During Q1, Hamilton ran wide at Turn 2 but failed to pass to the left of the bollard. Although he did not gain an advantage or improve his lap time, the stewards still opted to look into his misdemeanor after qualifying.

Late on Saturday, they confirmed that Hamilton had been handed a reprimand for the incident, marking his second of the season. If he racks up one more, he will receive a 10-place grid penalty.

Hamilton ultimately finished 10th in qualifying after an issue on his power unit prevented him from taking part in Q3.

“It’s obviously not a great feeling to be on the sidelines again – but that’s life,” Hamilton said. “I knew there was a problem and that it was probably the same failure that I had in China pretty much straight away. I went out for a second run in Q2 to get a feeler lap and felt the same power loss as last time.

“When it happened in Shanghai it was something we hadn’t seen before and now unfortunately it’s happened again, so we need to understand it. I’ve never been superstitious about these things, though, and I never will be. There’s nothing I can do about it, so I’ll move on and look ahead to the race.”

Hamilton said that Mercedes was yet to decide whether or not it would make any changes to his power unit overnight that may result in him receiving another penalty.

“I don’t know where I’m going to start yet – we’ll wait to see how that unfolds,” Hamilton said.

“But I never give up and I’ll give it all I’ve got to recover whatever I can in the race, like always. It’s not an easy track for overtaking. With the levels of tire degradation and it being so tough to follow here, it’s not going to be easy to make my way forward.

“But there are long straights and we’ve got good pace, so if I can keep the car in one piece I’ll be fighting for decent points I’m sure.”

The Russian Grand Prix is live on CNBC and Live Extra from 7am ET on Sunday.

Raikkonen: P4 in Russian GP qualifying ‘better than nothing’

SOCHI, RUSSIA - APRIL 29: Kimi Raikkonen of Finland driving the (7) Scuderia Ferrari SF16-H Ferrari 059/5 turbo (Shell GP) on track during practice for the Formula One Grand Prix of Russia at Sochi Autodrom on April 29, 2016 in Sochi, Russia.  (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)
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Kimi Raikkonen says that qualifying fourth for the Russian Grand Prix is “better than nothing” after struggling to get to grips with his Ferrari SF16-H car at the Sochi Autodrom.

Raikkonen finished fourth in Saturday’s Q3 session, and will move up to third place on the grid for tomorrow’s race thanks to Ferrari teammate Sebastian Vettel’s grid penalty.

Despite being in a position to lead the Italian marque’s charge against Mercedes and make the most of Lewis Hamilton’s grid penalty, Raikkonen was far from jubilant after qualifying.

The Finn had been set to take third in Q3, only to make a mistake on his final qualifying lap that meant he was unable to improve his time, leaving him P4 at the checkered flag.

“The whole weekend has been tricky: for whatever reason, I struggled all the time to put one decent lap together,” Raikkonen said.

“In qualifying it was a bit better, but I was still fighting with the front end in a few places. It could have been good enough for a second or a third place on the grid, but on my last lap I completely missed the last corner and slid away.

“Obviously I’m a disappointed with what happened, but considering how difficult it has been, this result it’s not ideal but it’s better than nothing.

“At least we are in third place at the start, we’ll see what happens tomorrow, I think in the race it’s going to be better.”

The Russian Grand Prix is live on CNBC and Live Extra from 7am ET on Sunday.