Le Mans: 2014 race and week observations

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Another year, and another 24 Hours of Le Mans is in the books. Here’s a number of brief thoughts and observations after the week that was, with the race now completed to add to my thoughts heading into the race.

  • Audi rolls over the media, again: In 2010, Audi was viewed as the underdog with a heavily revised version of the R15+ chassis, and Peugeot had three bullets that were expected to dominate … and then did before blowing their engines all within a two or three-hour period. Audi ended 1-2-3. In 2014, Toyota was viewed as having its best chance to win, and then did dominate with the No. 7 car before an electrical failure around 5 a.m. tossed them out. Porsche put up a good fight for its first effort, but this was a race where Audi once again proved they are the kings of Le Mans until otherwise dethroned.
  • Cleaner, safer race than expected: The worry I had going in was that the carnage that peppered practice and qualifying was going to do likewise on race day. There were still a number of incidents, and the brief rain deluge in the second hour proved chaotic, but overall, it was not a day where we had to worry about heavy accidents. The retirement rate was rather low, and primarily as a result of mechanical issues rather then accidents.
  • Poignant GTE-Am win: You can’t publicly root for any particular entry as a reporter, but, it was hard not to root for the No. 95 Young Driver AMR all-Danish entry for Aston Martin Racing in the GTE-Am class, a year after Allan Simonsen’s fatal accident. For Nicki Thiim, David Heinemeier Hansson and Kristian Poulsen, it was a flawless drive interrupted only by a couple brief scares in the final hour. I briefly stopped by the Aston Martin garage post-race, where joy was the overflowing emotion after last year’s heartbreak. And for DHH, from an actual racing standpoint, it was a brilliant recovery after a second place in LMP2 last year – the Danish programming ace has quickly developed into one of the world’s top, fastest and cleanest gentlemen drivers.
  • Heavy variety in LMP1, GTE-Pro; not as much in LMP2, GTE-Am: Relative to the number of cars entered in each class (9 LMP1, 17 LMP2, 1 experimental, 9 GTE-Pro, 18 GTE-Am), the two all-pro classes featured the best amount of variety. Audi, Porsche and Toyota all led in LMP1 and with mechanical issues affecting most of those seven cars, Rebellion Racing was there to capitalize with a surprise, yet impressive, fourth place overall finish in the LMP1-L Rebellion R-One Toyota. In GTE-Pro, all four manufacturers entered (Ferrari, Porsche, Aston Martin and Corvette) and the BoP was much closer than a year ago. It made for a thrilling race throughout that as my colleague Luke Smith mentioned yesterday, featured a margin of victory wide of the mark of how close it actually was. But with really only three or four cars pacing LMP2 and GTE-Am, there wasn’t much in terms of diversity there. Maybe that made it easier to follow?
  • America’s day: Corvette Racing flew the flag for the U.S. with a runner-up finish in GTE-Pro, with the No. 73 car driven by Jan Magnussen, Antonio Garcia and Jordan Taylor. A valve stem breakage on a pit stop cost them nearly two laps, ultimately the margin of victory to the class-winning No. 51 AF Corse Ferrari F458 Italia.
  • Big crowd: The ACO announced a crowd of 263,300 spectators for the race – and you could tell how many were on the grounds in trips into and out of the 8.4-mile circuit. There’s nothing else in the world like Le Mans.

Matheus Leist scores pole for Indy Lights’ Freedom 100

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INDIANAPOLIS – Persistent rain threatened to halted all track activity Thursday for the Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires, before efforts to dry the track came good later on Friday.

But once qualifying occurred, Matheus Leist secured the pole for the marquee race of the Indy Lights season, Friday’s Freedom 100 (live, 12 p.m. ET, NBCSN).

The Freedom 100 has a knack for throwing up surprise polesitters – Ethan Ringel and Ken Losch immediately come to mind – and Leist, the Brazilian rookie in his first-ever oval start, now joins that list.

Leist, driver of the No. 26 Carlin Dallara IL-15 Mazda, looked a promising prospect after posting the first official lap over 200 mph in series history, a tow-assisted lap of 201.032 mph (44.7690 seconds), and also the best no-tow speed of 199.354.

He backed up with laps of 199.268 and 199.128, respectively, for a new two-lap record of 199.198 mph. The previous mark was held by Ringel, in the first year of the new car in 2015, at 197.684 mph.

Despite seven other drivers that took their shot to beat him, none did. Colton Herta came the closest with a two-lap average of 198.648 in the No. 98 Andretti/Steinbrenner Racing entry.

Two more of Herta’s Andretti Autosport teammates posted excellent qualifying runs. Dalton Kellett, who was third here last year in what stands as his best Indy Lights finish to date, will roll off from the same position in his teal-and-white No. 28 car, while rookie Ryan Norman will start alongside in the No. 48 Andretti Autosport entry, keeping up his strong weekend.

Zachary Claman De Melo completed the top five in the second of four Carlin entries, while Aaron Telitz upheld Belardi Auto Racing’s honor with sixth on the grid.

While Herta enters Friday’s race third in points, 18 behind the top two, neither Kyle Kaiser (Juncos Racing) nor Nico Jamin (Andretti Autosport), had good qualifying runs.

With speeds of 196.058 (Kaiser) and 195.661 (Jamin), they’ll roll off from positions 11 and 13 in the 14-car field.

Here are your qualifying speeds and provisional starting lineup for Friday.

Prior to qualifying, the Indianapolis Motor Speedway crew got the track dry in time for a 20-minute practice, which Leist also led.

As you can see below, drivers spent the rain delay trying to make due of things.

The points standings heading into tomorrow’s race are below:

1. 18-Kyle Kaiser, 139
2. 27-Nico Jamin, 126
3. 98-Colton Herta, 121
4. 22-Neil Alberico, 103
5. 9-Aaron Telitz, 97
6. 26-Matheus Leist, 89
7. 5-Santiago Urrutia, 87
8. 13-Zachary Claman De Melo, 87
9. 51-Shelby Blackstock, 80
10. 31-Nicolas Dapero, 75
11. 48-Ryan Norman, 71
12. 28-Dalton Kellett, 64
13. 2-Juan Piedrahita, 55
14. 11-Garth Rickards, 54

Hinchcliffe will donate brain to study race-related concussions to help safety of sport

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INDIANAPOLIS – James Hinchcliffe is well known throughout the Verizon IndyCar Series for his sense of humor.

He’s the kind of guy that keeps not just his own team loose, but also does the same for other teams and fans.

Even when he’s talking about a serious topic, he can usually be counted on interjecting at least one or two great one-liners.

Hinchcliffe was in his usual form during Thursday’s Indianapolis 500 Media Day at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. But while he joked at times, the underlying message he tried to get across was very serious and very poignant to all forms of motorsports.

Namely, concussions and concussion research.

Hinchcliffe went so far as to say that when he passes away, he’s ready to donate his brain to science so it can be studied, particularly for some of the impacts and resulting concussions he’s endured throughout his racing career.

“Oh yeah, 100 percent, absolutely, it’s a done deal,” Hinchcliffe replied when asked if he’d ever consider donating his brain.

He then added with a whimsy but serious reality, “If it can help, if it can be put to use, I’ve got no need for it at that point. Absolutely, I’d donate it to the cause.”

Hinchcliffe said he’s studied the topic of racing-related concussions in all forms of motorsports, particularly IndyCar and NASCAR.

The Canadian driver, who sat on the pole for last year’s 100th running of the Indianapolis 500, said he’s thought on occasions about the ramifications of concussions upon race car drivers.

But it was NASCAR driver Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s concussion that forced him to sit out the entire second half of last season that greatly increased the attention of a number of drivers across all forms of motorsports.

“Honestly, I think most guys would be in a similar situation,” Hinchcliffe said. “Dale’s (Earnhardt’s) situation, I think that was something that a lot of guys had never been asked.

“But as soon as it was brought up, it was a no-brainer.”

Hinchcliffe then grew embarrassed when he realized his verbal faux pas and apologized, but his message was still on-point.

“It’s a very easy decision for us,” Hinchcliffe said. “If we can do something now, especially with something we don’t need anymore (after dying) and it’s going to help benefit the future safety of our sport, then it’s an easy call.”

Hinchcliffe starts 17th in the No. 5 Arrow Electronics Schmidt Peterson Motorsports Honda for Sunday’s race, a year after qualifying for the pole position.

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Vice President Mike Pence confirms Indy 500 visit

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INDIANAPOLIS – Vice President Mike Pence, the former Gov. of Indiana, will be “back home again” this weekend for the Indianapolis 500.

The slight difference, of course, is that his main residence is now in Washington, D.C. since the inauguration of President Donald Trump in January.

Pence is a longtime fan and visitor of the race, so while he confirmed he’ll attend on Thursday, it will not be in any official capacity.

“The Vice President is a Hoosier, grew up here, and tweeted some photos. He will be here as a fan. There will be no official role for him at the Indianapolis 500,” said Indianapolis Motor Speedway President J. Douglas Boles on Thursday.

Rumors percolated on Wednesday he’d be in attendance. On Wednesday, Boles said IMS was in the process of preparing for Pence’s arrival from security and operational protocols.

“We have heard, as have all of you, that there is a possibility the Vice President of United States,” Boles said Wednesday. “We are not in position yet to confirm or deny yet; however I can tell you we are preparing for it. As soon as we know, we hope to know by end of the day tomorrow, we’ll have another one of these briefings.”

Indeed they have on Thursday. The only major change announced was that there will be no pedestrian traffic at Gate 4.

“The Turn 2 suites, just South of those suites is what we call Gate 4. Gate 4 will be closed to pedestrian traffic beginning tomorrow,” Boles said.

Vettel not counting Mercedes out of Monaco F1 pole fight

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Sebastian Vettel is refusing to discount Mercedes from the fight for Formula 1 pole in Monaco this weekend despite the German marque’s quiet showing in Thursday’s practice sessions.

Vettel led Ferrari to the top of the timesheets in FP2 with the fastest-ever lap around the streets of Monaco, finishing almost half a second clear of the field.

Vettel’s F1 title rival Lewis Hamilton struggled through second practice, finishing over a second off the pace in eighth place for Mercedes as the team moved in the wrong direction on car setup.

Nevertheless, Vettel is refusing to discount Hamilton or teammate Valtteri Bottas from the fight for pole, believing Mercedes will find its feet again come Saturday’s qualifying session.

“I am not counting out Mercedes. They probably had a problem today, but I am sure they will be back to full force on Saturday,” Vettel said, as quoted by the official F1 website.

“It is Thursday so there is plenty of time for them to sort things out. My guess is that it will be very close – and that the five-tenths are not the reality.

“We have been able to put it together today and I am happy about that. It was a good start into the weekend. Now let’s let that sink in and see that we keep the tension until Sunday.”

Even with his own strong showing, Vettel is confident that more time can be found, particularly through the long runs that will prove critical in the race.

“The aim is to get faster. If it really works we will see,” Vettel said.

“What I can say right away that the single-lap pace is very promising, and how the long run will work is very difficult to predict, as you always run into traffic.

“My guess is that we still can get better in race trim. We will analyze every single corner and sector to see where we can find valuable time.”