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.

IndyCar 2017 driver review: Sebastien Bourdais

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MotorSportsTalk continues its annual review of the Verizon IndyCar Series drivers that raced in 2017. A dream start occurred for Sebastien Bourdais and the Dale Coyne Racing team upon their reunion, followed by a nightmare in Indianapolis with a huge crash in qualifying, and ended with a rapid recovery to build confidence for 2018.

Sebastien Bourdais, No. 18 Dale Coyne Racing Honda

  • 2016: 14th Place, 1 Win, Best Start 3rd, 1 Podium, 3 Top-5, 11 Top-10, 24 Laps Led, 11.9 Avg. Start, 11.2 Avg. Finish
  • 2017: 21st Place (8 Starts), 1 Win, Best Start 6th, 2 Podiums, 2 Top-5, 5 Top-10, 74 Laps Led, 12.4 Avg. Start, 11.0 Avg. Finish

The 2017 campaign for Sebastien Bourdais upon his return to Dale Coyne Racing will forever be known as both a year of “what could have been” and a year of “what a comeback it was.”

The abnormal season for Bourdais stretched eight races with a three-month break in the middle owing to his own mistake qualifying for the Indianapolis 500, which left him with multiple pelvic fractures and a fracture to his right hip. His car was a rocket ship; but after two laps at 231 mph, Bourdais appeared to over-correct and destroyed the wall at Turn 2 in Indy in a massive 127G impact. It was a horrific looking accident, but one that also saw Bourdais rather lucky to have not been injured worse.

It set forth in motion an incredible recovery that saw Bourdais back testing the Monday after Mid-Ohio, just over two months since the accident, then in race action just over three months later at the 1.25-mile Gateway Motorsports Park oval, and because Bourdais is a regulation badass, he finished in the top-10 straight out of the box. He worked as hard as he did to return earlier than anticipated to avoid an offseason of questions asking if he’d come back and if he’d be strong enough to do so.

The recovery was a welcome story to end the year after the agony at Indy that stopped a potential title run or certainly top-five in points finish in its tracks. A classic Coyne strategy special vaulted Bourdais from last to first and a popular win in his U.S. hometown of St. Petersburg to kick off the year. A second place at Long Beach backed it up and eighth at Barber kept him atop the standings.

But Indy was shaping up to be an important bounce back weekend after Bourdais got taken out in Phoenix, then incurred an engine failure in the IMS road course race. And then, of course, his loud and violent accident qualifying for the ‘500 changed the course of the season.

After three “almost there” but largely unfulfilling years at KV Racing Technology, Bourdais embraced the family atmosphere back at Coyne along with longtime engineers Craig Hampson and Olivier Boisson, determined to continue punching above the team’s weight. He crafted a remarkable story all season and will be keen to fulfill it over the course of a proper full campaign in 2018.