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.

F1 2017 driver review: Esteban Ocon

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Esteban Ocon

Team: Sahara Force India
Car No.: 31
Races: 20
Wins: 0
Podiums: 0
Best Finish: P5 (Spain, Mexico)
Pole Positions: 0
Fastest Laps: 0
Points: 87
Championship Position: 8th

A shining star in Mercedes’ junior programme, Esteban Ocon vaulted fellow youngster Pascal Wehrlein in the pecking order to secure a seat at Force India for 2017 – and boy, did he live up to the hype.

Ocon arrived at Force India with half a season of racing under his belt after his outings with Manor late in 2016, but wasted little time in settling in, scoring points on debut in Australia after winning a thrilling three-way fight with Nico Hulkenberg and Fernando Alonso.

The Frenchman spent much of the year close to teammate Sergio Perez – even if things did get a little too close in Canada, Baku and, finally, Spa, prompting the team to introduce team orders – and impressed the entire paddock with his displays.

While no podium was forthcoming, Ocon was often leading the midfield fight, enjoying three straight finishes ahead of Perez from Japan to Mexico. Given how well Perez is rated on-track in the paddock, to have convincingly beaten him in such fashion did a lot for Ocon’s reputation.

The term ‘Oconsistency’ also came into F1’s dictionary as he set a new record for consecutive finishes from his first race, with his retirement in Brazil ending the streak at 27 grands prix. It was also his first retirement in a single-seater race since the 2014 Macau Grand Prix.

The highlight moment arguably came at Monza, though, when Ocon stuck his Force India third on the grid through torrential rain in qualifying. While he would drop to P6 at the checkered flag, the display nevertheless cemented his place as one of F1’s rising stars.

Mercedes rates Ocon very highly, and with Valtteri Bottas’ future beyond 2018 already being questioned by the paddock, a good season could see the youngster move on up to the top table of F1 for 2019. His progression in the next 12 months will be fascinating to keep track of.

Season High: Lining up P3 on the grid at Monza after a rainy qualifying.

Season Low: Clashing with Perez in Baku, costing Force India a possible podium.