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.

NHRA: Antron Brown on verge of earning 50th career Top Fuel win this weekend at Phoenix

Photo courtesy Toyota Racing
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When you’re used to winning championships – like three in the previous five seasons – any other season finish is disappointing.

That’s kind of how NHRA Top Fuel dragster driver Antron Brown looked at his fourth-place showing in the 2017 Mello Yello Drag Racing Series.

“At the end of the day, we had a very competitive season last year and made it to 10 final rounds,” Brown said. “But we got into the Countdown (NHRA’s six-race playoffs) and our timing was off.

“We struggled with a lot of problems we don’t usually have. Now it’s time for a new chapter for this team and time to get better. This is a new beginning for us and it’s going to be fun and exciting and we’re coming after them.”

Antron Brown hugs the NHRA Top Fuel championship trophy after winning it in 2016. (Photo by David Allio/Icon Sportswire)

Brown had a good start to 2018, reaching the semifinals before losing to Don Schumacher Racing teammate Tony Schumacher in the season-opening Lucas Oil Winternationals at Auto Club Raceway in Pomona, California.

“We had a great performance at Pomona and I couldn’t be more proud of what our Matco/Toyota guys did,” Brown said. “Now we are going to Phoenix where we’ve won three times (2009, 2012 and 2014, and was runner-up in 2011) and we’ll just try to hit it hard and get a fourth.”

Next up on the NHRA 24-race national event circuit is the second race of the season, this weekend’s NHRA Arizona Nationals at Wild Horse Pass Motorsports Park in suburban Phoenix (Chandler, Arizona).

Brown has definite plans to make it four wins in Phoenix. And if he does that Sunday, he’ll set a significant career milestone: it would be his 50th career win driving a Top Fueler and the 66th win overall (he won 16 races in Pro Stock Motorcycle before shifting from two to four wheels).

In so doing, Brown would become only the fourth Top Fuel driver in NHRA history to hit the 50-win mark. The others are Tony Schumacher (83), Larry Dixon (62) and Joe Amato (52).

This will be the second time Brown has been racing in Phoenix this month. He was part of the preseason test there for Top Fuel, Funny Car and Pro Stock cars a week before the season began.

“Testing went really well there,” said Brown, leaving him optimistic that he can reach victory circle once again. “I love going back to Phoenix.”

Brown has been the most dominant driver in NHRA Top Fuel competition since 2012, winning more than twice the number of races (34) than the next most successful Top Fuel driver (16 by Schumacher) in that time period.

He also has a 71 percent overall win percentage, which exceeds both eight-time Top Fuel champ Schumacher and 16-time Funny Car champ John Force.

“I’m just pumped up, feeling like we’ve got some unfinished business from last year,” Brown said. “We had a good outing but didn’t close the deal, so this year, we’re looking forward to getting back there and getting off to a great start.”

NOTES: Brown will serve as honorary pace car driver for the March 4th Pennzoil 400 NASCAR Cup race at Las Vegas. He’ll be joined by teammates Matt Hagan and Leah Pritchett in a weekend full of activities that they’ll all be involved in.

“I’m really excited,” Brown said. “It’s going to be my first experience as a pace car driver, and I’m just super stoked to go out there and drive the Camry pace car for Pennzoil and start those NASCAR boys off the right way. Throttle down, pedal to the metal. I just want them to get off to a great start.”

Brown has won four times at The Strip, the drag strip adjacent to Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

“I couldn’t be more excited to have the opportunity,” he said. “It’s an honor to be out there with such talented drivers, and I know I’m going to really enjoy watching our NASCAR counterparts.”

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