Le Mans: News, notes and how to watch pre-race round-up

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The beauty of 24 Hours of Le Mans week is that there’s a lot of news… and the occasional frustration of Le Mans week is that there’s a lot of news.

QUALIFYING TIMES, STARTING GRID

But with a week of on-track preparation in the bag, and all the pre-race events out of the way, it’s time to analyze where we are and round-up the key items from the time in France:

  • The LMP1 battle: Fuel. Economy. It’s the two words we’ll hear a bit and know for certain after the first two stints – so watch carefully to see how Audi, Toyota and Porsche get on in terms of lap count. Project it out, and that’s how you’ll be able to sort out the pit stop number the remaining 22 hours or so.
  • Mark Webber’s return: The highest profile new addition to the FIA World Endurance Championship, and Le Mans by default, makes his first start here in 15 years aboard the No. 20 Porsche 919 Hybrid he’ll share with Timo Bernhard and Brendon Hartley. I’m sure I’m not the first to write that here’s to landing and ending on all four wheels this time around, after his 1999 aerial excursion for Mercedes.
  • Slow zones: New for 2014 are the introduction of designated “slow zones,” where certain portions of the track are temporarily speed-restricted to 60 km/hr. There’s been some concern in the paddock about speed disparities as cars close up, and whether all drivers will note when the “slow zone” caution lights appear on the dash. Another case of “stay tuned while this gets sorted out early, and we’ll figure it out how it affects the race later.”
  • ‘Merica, on the team front: From the U.S. perspective, Corvette Racing and Dempsey Racing-Proton are the likely contenders in GTE-Pro and GTE-Am for hopeful podium finishes. One for Corvette would tie a nice wrap around its 15th anniversary at Le Mans and be the first for the new C7.R; one for Dempsey would be the first for Patrick Dempsey.
  • ‘Merica, on the driving front: There’s 18 U.S. drivers in this year’s race, although only a handful that are that well-known in the States. Brothers Jordan and Ricky Taylor, Greaves’ Chris Dyson and 16-year-old Matt McMurry and the all-American Dempsey lineup of Dempsey, Joe Foster and Patrick Long have some cache though.
  • GTE scrap: Only four manufacturers are entered but it’s hard to separate much of Ferrari, Corvette and Aston Martin, and oddly its defending double class champion Porsche that enters the race on the back foot with their Porsche 911 RSR and older Porsche 911 GT3 RSR models, respectively. LMP1 may be the show, but GTE-Pro and Am are not going to be lacking for action, either.
  • LMP2’s showdown: Chances are a Nissan engine’s going to win, as it powers 13 of the 17 cars entered. But the chassis showdown between the venerable Oreca 03, Zytek Z11SN and Morgan cars against the debuting Ligier JS P2 –which thus far has shown impressive pace – is the thing to watch.
  • “Stig green”: Krohn Racing is a cool and popular underdog team to watch this year; Tracy Krohn’s team having been able to make it on a tight schedule. Former “Top Gear” “Stig” Ben Collins is a late and valuable add to the driver lineup. “It reminds me of two days as a green stig, when we did the environmentally friendly, very badly executed car we made on Top Gear. It’s really useful on the track because the thing stands out by a mile,” Collins told MotorSportsTalk.
  • Pre-race war of attrition: Name a car at random and there’s a good chance it’s been involved in an incident this week. Most have been in GTE, but there’s been a number of LMP1 and LMP2 cars involved too. I’m guessing we haven’t heard the last of this theme song thus far, but I’m really hoping the frequency of carnage subsides.
  • Prayers for safety: From talking to some of those here last year (and I can’t say I was one of them), there’s the sense that the race carried on after Allan Simonsen’s fatal accident just because it had to. No one wants an encore and frankly, we’ve had too many scary accidents in practice this week – none of them on replay (Loic Duval’s, James Calado’s and Fernando Rees’ all at Porsche Curves) – that puts a freaky sense out there heading into Saturday’s race. Even if you’re not religious, pray for a safe, clean 24 hours where all 162 drivers, crews and fans come home in one piece.
  • How to watch: Saturday, June 14 – 8:30 AM to 4:00 PM (FOX Sports 1, LIVE),  4:00 PM to 5:00 PM (FOX Sports 2, LIVE),  6:30 PM to 1:00 AM (FOX Sports 2, LIVE), 1:00 AM to 7:30 AM (FOX Sports 1, LIVE), 7:30 AM to 9:30 AM (FOX Sports 2, LIVE); with the entire race streamed LIVE on FOX Sports GO. All times are ET.

Spencer Pigot ready for full-season IndyCar effort with ECR

Photo: IndyCar
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After spending the last two years in a part-time role with Ed Carpenter Racing, contesting the road and street course races in the No. 20 Fuzzy’s Vodka Chevrolet, Spencer Pigot now gets a long-awaited chance at a full-season effort in 2018.

Moving over to the No. 21 entry, which has featured ECR’s full-season driver since 2016, Pigot has seen slight differences in his off-season prep ahead of the 2018 Verizon IndyCar Series season.

“We were one of the teams that got to a handful of days testing the aero kit, so I obviously did all the running on the road courses, but I was able to do a few laps on the ovals when Ed was testing. So, that wouldn’t have happened (if I was part-time still),” he told NBC Sports.

However, outside of that increase in testing and a little learning some new tracks – he has not raced at ISM Raceway, Gateway Motorsports Park, Pocono Raceway, or Iowa Speedway in an IndyCar – the changes to Pigot’s off-season program have not been dramatic.

“There’s definitely some things I’ll need to learn, but as far as off-season prep: nothing too dramatic, nothing too different.”

Pigot’s first full-season campaign saw its first official outing of the 2018 season last weekend during the open test at ISM Raceway. While he and the ECR team struggled to find speed much of the weekend – they languished outside of the top ten in the results of the first three sessions – things took a turn for the better during the final session of the weekend on Saturday night, when Pigot ended up ninth on the speed charts.

He ended up 14th in the combined results for the weekend, noting that he and the team still want to find more outright speed.

“I thought throughout the test that our average long run pace was okay, but we were still missing the outright pace to be where we need to be come qualifying time,” he revealed. “I think that we definitely made a step forward Saturday night and definitely have a much better idea of a direction we can head and go with when we go back.”

In terms of long-run practice, Pigot noted that tire degradation became much more prevalent, which made running with others cars around you somewhat of a challenge. Though, he emphasized that tire degradation could be beneficial for racing.

“Talking to some of the other guys, it seems a little bit harder to run behind people as the tires go off because the tires are degrading pretty quick with the lack of downforce as well,” he explained. “So, it’s going to be tricky, it’s going to be sliding around a little bit more than what guys have experienced in the past. But, I think everyone’s under the same kind of idea that it’s going to be better racing, and especially at (ISM Raceway) it should be exciting.”

Pigot did get some practice at overtaking at ISM and got a feel for what he may be able to expect when IndyCar returns in April for the Phoenix Grand Prix, and while he acknowledged it was difficult to judge during testing, he did feel like he could run around other cars without much of an issue.

“It’s not like a race when everyone comes in the pits at the same time and you’re all on similar tires, so it’s kind of hard to know exactly. But, I thought we were pretty good,” he detailed. “I thought I was able to run pretty close to guys in front of me and was able to make a few passes when other guys made mistakes or might have gone a little high.”

The test also served as Pigot’s first IndyCar venture on a short oval – he last ran on a short oval in 2015 during his Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires championship season.

“The corners definitely come up quick. There’s not much time to really relax or think about too much,” Pigot quipped when describing his first time on a short oval.

He continued, “You’ve got to concentrate pretty hard on being precise because the line there is very narrow so you have to make sure that you’re where the grip is at all points throughout the corner. And then, when everyone’s out there and you run in traffic, it’s just like you’re constantly in a corner, so it’s a little more difficult to get big runs and drafts off people. But I think it’ll definitely play into the hands of guys that have their cars set up well and can be easier on the tires.”

And in becoming the team’s full-time driver, Pigot is seeing a slight increase in his leadership role within the team, especially as it relates to testing and development, with Pigot doing the lion’s share of testing during the winter on road courses.

But, he also emphasized the oval prowess of teammate, and team owner, Ed Carpenter as something he will lean on when he ventures out on other ovals for the first time this year.

“Especially as we’re trying to learn this new aero kit, I was the one that pretty much did all the testing on the road and street courses. It was kind of me and the engineers trying to develop the car and work towards the setup that’s going to work for us. So, there’s definitely a little more responsibility in that. But, then on the ovals, obviously Ed’s there and he’s a great teammate to have and to learn from and bounce ideas off of. But, yeah, it’s definitely a more involved role within the team,” Pigot explained.

Pigot and ECR will test two more times, at Barber Motorsports Park and Sebring International Raceway, in the month of February prior to the season-opening Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg on March 11.

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