Photo: Scuderia Corsa

Bell, Sweedler kick off Le Mans title defense with solid test

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NBCSN Verizon IndyCar Series analyst Townsend Bell and longtime co-driver Bill Sweedler have a new car, and a new teammate, with which to defend their GTE-Am class victory in the 2017 24 Hours of Le Mans.

After co-driving with Jeff Segal to win last year’s race in the No. 62 Scuderia Corsa Ferrari 458 Italia, Bell and Sweedler now join Cooper MacNeil in the WeatherTech-backed No. 62 Scuderia Corsa Ferrari 488 GTE, the next iteration in the line of successful Ferrari GT models.

MacNeil arrived in France after competing Saturday in the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship race at Detroit, one of several drivers who flew on his private plane over to Le Mans immediately after the race.

All three drivers were busy today in the Le Mans Test Day. In total, the trio ran 74 laps around the 8.4-mile closed-road circuit. At the end of nearly eight hours of running the trio were fourth on the time sheet with a fast lap of 3:58.599, fastest of the class Ferrari cars, and fourth in the GTE Am class.

“Solid first day running at Le Mans,” Bell said. “The WeatherTech Ferrari was perfect out of the box. Cooper and Bill were really strong too their first time in this new car. Can’t wait for race day!”

Sweedler added, “The team had the car ready go from the drop of the green this morning. It was great to get in a lot of laps for all three of us today. The car feels great on the track and we all drove competitive times. Gives me a lot of confidence for the race in two weeks.”

MacNeil, who was last of the group to arrive, hailed Bell and Sweedler’s immediate feedback and pace.

“Townsend and Bill arrived before I did and had everything ready to go,” MacNeil said. “When I got in the car it was right. We need to work on my seating position a little bit, but that is a small thing we will correct. The Michelin tires are great and I turned a lot of laps. The WeatherTech Ferrari is very confidence inspiring around this 8-mile track. I am happy with the way the day went and I am looking for driving it in the 24.”

Hartley happy with ‘big progression’ on first day with Toro Rosso

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With 69 laps completed (28 in free practice one and 41 in free practice two) and respectable lap times in both sessions, Brendon Hartley quickly acclimated to a modern day Formula 1 chassis in his first run with Scuderia Toro Rosso in Friday practice for the United States Grand Prix.

The Porsche factory driver has been drafted into the team following a convoluted series of musical chairs that sees Daniil Kvyat back after a two-race absence, Carlos Sainz Jr. now at Renault and Pierre Gasly racing at the Super Formula season finale in Suzuka.

Over the time in the car today, Hartley experienced changeable conditions in FP1 before a more normal FP2, and discovered the new F1 cockpit after a day learning in the garage yesterday.

“A steep learning curve today! It all went pretty smoothly and I kept the car on track without making too many mistakes, so I’m quite happy,” the New Zealander reflected at day’s end.

“I didn’t really know what to expect from today because I just had so much to learn! I think I made quite a big progression throughout the day.

“The biggest difference from what I’m used to is the high-speed grip, it’s incredible here in Formula 1…it was quite an eye-opener! Another challenge are the tires, which are also quite different to what I’m used to. On the other hand, the long-run looks quite positive and I did a good job managing the tires there – the biggest thing I need to work on now is the new tire pace, and I’ll get another crack at it tomorrow morning before qualifying.

“All in all, I’d say it’s all coming together. We’ll now work hard and go through plenty of data tonight and hopefully I’ll make another step forward tomorrow.”

His best lap was 1.1 seconds up on Friday driver Sean Gelael, the Indonesian Formula 2 driver, in FP1 (1:39.267 to 1:40.406, good enough for 14th) and 1.1 seconds off the returning Kvyat in FP2 (1:37.987 to 1:36.761, good enough for 17th). Interestingly, the Gelael/Hartley combination in FP1 marked the second time in three races that Toro Rosso had a pair of drivers in its cars without a single Grand Prix start between them – Gasly’s debut at Malaysia was the other, when he and Gelael were in in FP1.

Coming into Friday’s running, Hartley said he was more ready for this opportunity now than he had been as a teenager. He admitted he’d called Red Bull’s Helmut Marko in the wake of Porsche’s LMP1 withdrawal news earlier this year to say he was game for any chance that might come.

“I’m a lot stronger than I was back then, basically. I wasn’t ready at 18 years old. I like to think I’m ready now,” he said.

“I haven’t driven a single-seater since 2012, but I like to think that Porsche LMP1 has hopefully prepared me well.”

As for the rest of his weekend, it’s been made more complicated by Hartley being assessed a 25-spot grid penalty, even though Hartley had done nothing to accrue the penalties.

The roundabout sequence of driver changes at Toro Rosso saw Gasly replace Kvyat, Kvyat replace Sainz, and now Hartley replace Gasly, as is outlined by NBCSN pit reporter Will Buxton below.