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.

Sebastien Bourdais released from IU Methodist hospital; begins rehab

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INDIANAPOLIS – Sebastien Bourdais only posted just yesterday that he was “unable to go for a run” – his spirit and humor clearly not affected despite sustaining multiple pelvic fractures and a fractured right hip in his crash during qualifying for the 101st Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil in the No. 18 GEICO Honda on Saturday.

On Thursday, his post revealed even better news: he’s been released from IU Health Methodist Hospital in Indianapolis, and will be set to fly home soon to Florida for his rehabilitation.

Bourdais’ place in the race at Dale Coyne Racing will be taken by James Davison, but judging by this first round of leaving, the Frenchman is keen to begin the recovery process as quick as humanly possible.

Bottas remains confident he can close gap in F1 title race

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MONACO (AP) Valtteri Bottas has put his recent bad luck behind him and remains confident he can close the gap in the Formula One title race at this weekend’s Monaco Grand Prix.

The Finnish driver’s fledgling Mercedes career has been a topsy-turvy one since he joined from Williams as a replacement for F1 champion Nico Rosberg.

He drove brilliantly to win his first career race at the Russian Grand Prix after securing his first ever pole position in Sochi last month. But two weeks ago he was undone by engine problems in practice for the Spanish GP and then failed to finish because of a turbo issue late in the race.

“It’s one to forget for sure. It’s been a bit up and down for me this year,” Bottas said Wednesday at the Monaco GP. “Bad result, good result.”

His other results so far are two third places and one sixth place, putting him 41 points behind four-time F1 champion Sebastian Vettel and 35 behind three-time champion Lewis Hamilton, his Mercedes teammate.

“The gap to Sebastian, to Lewis, is bigger than I was hoping for this year. But things can change quickly,” Bottas said. “What gives me confidence is that there is still 75 percent of the season left. I feel my best races are ahead this year. I feel I’ve done a good job in some races, but I feel there is more to come to be at a consistently good level.”

Although Bottas has impressed with this speed, he has yet to show the hallmarks of a genuine title contender.

His magnanimous approach goes somewhat against that.

Bottas showed his team ethic by allowing Hamilton past him in Bahrain so that the British driver could chase after Vettel.

He did so again in Barcelona, holding up Vettel for a crucial few laps. That allowed Hamilton to gain some precious seconds on Vettel’s chasing Ferrari. Hamilton won a thrilling race, Vettel was second and Bottas got nothing – except praise for his efforts.

It is a difficult situation for Bottas, who is on a one-year contract and has the added pressure of the demanding Hamilton as a teammate. With 55 race wins to his name, Hamilton is clearly the No. 1 driver, even though the team has not officially said so.

Over the past three years, Hamilton was on an equal footing with Rosberg as they fought each other for the title. This led to tensions and fall outs.

The 27-year-old Bottas is not relishing the prospect of finding himself in a similar position. But it might become inevitable if he does manage to close the gap on Hamilton and turn the title race into a genuine three-way battle.

“I can’t even imagine how it can be after a few years with a teammate battling for the title always. There is respect both ways (with Hamilton), which is good,” Bottas said. “(We are) just enjoying working together and hopefully that will help us in this close fight with Ferrari. It is a team sport anyway, so we need to push forward together.”

It’s hardly the talk of a driver desperate to win the title.

F1 Paddock Pass: Monaco Grand Prix (VIDEO)

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From the streets of Monte Carlo, Monaco, comes the crown jewel of the Formula 1 season (all times for the weekend via NBC or NBCSN here) this weekend, the Monaco Grand Prix.

And here with the pre-race updates from the paddock are NBCSN pit reporter and insider Will Buxton and producer Jason Swales, along with the race crew from the F1 on NBC team who are on site in Monaco.

This is an interesting weekend for Monaco, given the Lewis Hamilton and Sebastian Vettel battle for race wins and the championship so far in 2017. There’s also the question of whether someone can spring a surprise in Monaco, as has been done on several occasions over the years.

Here’s the show, below:

Brown wants to see F1 back at Indianapolis Motor Speedway

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McLaren executive director Zak Brown would like to see Formula 1 return to Indianapolis Motor Speedway in the future, saying it would “make sense” for the sport.

The United States Grand Prix was held on the old IMS road course between 2000 and 2007 before dropping off the calendar, with a low point being hit in 2005 when just six cars started the race over tire safety concerns.

IMS re-designed its road course in order to host MotoGP and, from 2014, an IndyCar road course race as a prelude to the Indianapolis 500.

F1 is known to be looking to expand its footprint in the United States following Liberty Media’s takeover of the series, with additional races to the current USGP at the Circuit of The Americas in Austin, Texas being sought after.

Southern California has also been a talking point; Long Beach’s future has been discussed in the press more so than has Indianapolis, as a consulting firm has been brought in to examine what would be the best case scenario for the city.

Brown has spent a significant amount time this last month in Indianapolis as part of two-time F1 World Champion Fernando Alonso’s Indy 500 entry, and feels the sport would be wise to push for a return to the Brickyard in the near future.

“I am of the opinion that Formula 1 at IMS works. I think they’ve changed the configuration of the track a little bit,” Brown said during a teleconference on Wednesday.

“I think it makes sense for Formula 1 to be at the world’s greatest racetrack. I think the city of Indianapolis is well catered to take care of Formula 1, just like it did in the past, and the Super Bowl.

“I think the drivers like it. I think Indianapolis is easy to get to geographically. I realize it may not have the glamour of some of the other markets that are being spoken about, but it’s here, it’s ready to go.

“I think economically, given that Liberty is taking a different view on some of their future partnerships, I think there is an opportunity there. Personally I’d like to see it happen.”

J. Douglas Boles, Indianapolis Motor Speedway President, told a group of reporters on site that no talks had been held with Liberty as of yet, and while the circuit would be open to negotiations, it would have to be financially viable.

“I have not had any talks directly with the folks with Liberty or with Formula 1. We’d certainly entertain a conversation,” Boles said.

“We’d have to figure out the economics. That’s why it wasn’t here after 2007; in order for it to come back here, the economics would have to make sense.

“At some level that conversation, Mark Miles [CEO of Hulman & Co., INDYCAR/IMS parent company] and Zak have a really good relationship, I think we’d ultimately lead it through Mark.

“When we redid the road course between 2013 and 2014, one of the things that was important to us was to make sure our road course remained FIA Grade 1, so if that there ever was a point in time where we had the opportunity to host an F1 race, we wouldn’t have to go through a complete renovation of our road course again.

“There’s two tracks in the U.S. that are that. COTA’s one, and we’re the other. So theoretically they could run here.”