(Photo by Dean Treml/Red Bull via Getty Images)

Le Mans 24: 2017 LMP2 Preview

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The LMP2 class presents the biggest class, numerically, and perhaps the greatest wild card in this year’s 24 Hours of Le Mans.

ENTRY LIST

With a 25-car grid, the cost-capped second tier prototype category has nearly half of the cars within the 60-car field.

And with a number of drivers delivering top speeds faster with the new Gibson 4.2 liter V8 engine than the LMP1 hybrid cars, it’s going to make for an interesting chess match to see how passing occurs.

At the Le Mans Test Day, 12 LMP2 drivers – from fastest driver Roberto Lacorte in the No. 47 Cetilar Villorba Corse Dallara P217 at 341.3 kph down to Matthieu Vaxviere in the No. 28 TDS Oreca 07 at 330.8 kph – were all quicker than the best LMP1 hybrid speed, Kazuki Nakajima at 330.8 kph in the No. 7 Toyota TS050 Hybrid. Only one LMP1 car, the NISMO-powered ENSO CLM P1/01 of Marco Bonanomi (336 kph) interrupted the LMP2 pace setters.

It’s fair to say the LMP2 field isn’t at its strongest throughout the entirety of the 75 drivers entered among the 25 cars. With the speeds up and the talent level down in some places, that will place a premium on patience for all involved to ensure the LMP2 race doesn’t infringe upon other categories.

Inevitably too there are some entries that are stronger than others. We’ll break down the field by the 10 WEC LMP2 cars versus the 15 from either the ELMS or at-large.

WEC: ALL ORECAS, SOME OFF TO BETTER STARTS THAN OTHERS

SPA, BELGIUM – MAY 6: G-Drive Racing LMP2 driver Roman Rusinov of Russia films from the roof of their class winning car as it drives through the pits during the 6 Hours of Spa-Francorchamps, the second round of the 2017 FIA World Endurance Championship’s at Spa-Francorchamps Circuit on May 6, 2017 in Spa, Belgium. (Photo by Dean Treml/Red Bull via Getty Images)

All 10 cars here are of the Oreca 07 designation, the pair of rebadged Alpine A470 cars from Signatech Alpine Matmut serving as the only bit of variety.

Jackie Chan DC Racing (Ho-Pin Tung, Thomas Laurent, Oliver Jarvis, No. 38) and G-Drive Racing (Roman Rusinov, Pierre Thiriet, Alex Lynn, No. 26) have won the first two races at Silverstone and Spa, and both cars are contenders here – Laurent and Lynn are the young stars making their Le Mans debuts. Their sister cars (David Cheng, Tristan Gommendy, Alex Brundle, DC No. 37 and Francois Perrodo, Vaxiviere and Emmanuel Collard, TDS No. 28) aren’t outright favorites although Brundle figures to impress at some point in his first Le Mans start since 2014.

After overachieving in the LMP1 privateer ranks, the Vaillante Rebellion team is back to its LMP2 roots this year, and has a great chance of delivering Bart Hayden a class win in a category with more than just a handful of cars. The team’s No. 31 entry of Nico Prost, Julien Canal and Bruno Senna have come second in both races so far; the team’s No. 13 of Nelson Piquet Jr., David Heinemeier Hansson and Mathias Beche has not yet posted a result of note in 2017. DHH is a past Le Mans winner in GTE-Am and will be keen to add an LMP2 title to his resume.

NORTHAMPTON, ENGLAND – APRIL 14: The Signatech Alpine Matmut of Nicolas Lapierre, Gustavo Menezes and Matt Rao drives during practice for the FIA World Endurance Championship at Silverstone on April 14, 2017 in Northampton, England. (Photo by Ker Robertson/Getty Images)

Signatech Alpine enters as defending class winners, but with a different lineup. With overall winner Romain Dumas paired with defending LMP2 winner Gustavo Menezes and Matt Rao as third driver, the No. 36 Alpine A470 is the early better bet than the No. 35 car of Nelson Panciatici, Pierre Ragues and Andre Negrao. Negrao, like Menezes, is an open-wheel convert who figures to impress on his maiden Le Mans voyage.

CEFC Manor TRS Racing’s two cars feature Jean-Eric Vergne and Vitaly Petrov split among four others who aren’t quite the caliber of some other drivers in class. The pace may be there but seeing both of these cars in contention come sunrise will be a surprise.

ELMS/ELSEWHERE: VARIETY MIXED IN AMONG SOME DEBUTS

Both European Le Mans Series race winners headline this group of 15 cars, with United Autosports (No. 32 Ligier JS P217, Will Owen, Hugo de Sadeleer, Filipe Albuquerque) and G-Drive (run by DragonSpeed, No. 22 Oreca 07, Memo Rojas, Ryo Hirakawa, Jose Gutierrez) having won at Silverstone and Monza. The G-Drive car swaps Leo Roussel for Gutierrez this race and the young Mexican has developed rapidly in P2 ahead of his Le Mans debut.

The No. 40 Graff Oreca 07 leads No. 22 G-Drive Oreca 07 and No. 3 United Ligier JS P3 at Silverstone. Photo: Oreca/DPPI

The United Ligier is one of seven in this batch of 15 cars, and while it was the highest of those cars on the test day, the problem was that was 14th on the grid behind 13 Orecas. On paper that would appear the Oreca low downforce kit has the edge over Ligier, who should have won with the previous generation JS P2 on debut in 2014 but lost out late. Oreca has won the last two Le Mans with its previous generation Oreca 05. Of the other Ligiers, the Panis-Barthez No. 23, Tockwith No. 34 and Algarve Pro No. 45 cars could be interesting entries, the latter of which features American Matt McMurry in the lineup for his second Le Mans start, and first since becoming the race’s youngest driver in history at age 16 in 2014.

DragonSpeed’s primary car, the No. 21 Oreca 07, is undoubtedly one to watch. In Ben Hanley, debutante Felix Rosenqvist and Elton Julian’s primary driver Henrik Hedman, the American team has done well in ELMS and has one of racing’s most rapid drivers in the speedy Swede, Rosenqvist.

Another car with American interest is Ben Keating’s Riley Mk. 30, in that car’s base chassis race debut in Europe. Keating, Jeroen Bleekemolen and Ricky Taylor have one of the best driver lineups in class but an unproven car and one that, unlike most of the field, is on Michelin tires rather than Dunlops.

Mikhail Aleshin flies the flag for IndyCar regulars in class, as part of an all-Russian lineup in the No. 27 SMP Racing Dallara P217 that also includes Sergey Sirotkin in his Le Mans debut. Another Dallara to watch is that of Rubens Barrichello, in his Le Mans debut, driving with Jan Lammers and Fritz van Eerd in the No. 29 car for Racing Team Nederland.

It would be a surprise to see the IDEC Sport, Eurasia, Graff, Villorba Corse or ARC Bratislava entries make major headway up the class rankings. Graff may have the right car in this list – an Oreca compared to the others – but not the driver lineups.

Four cars in total, the No. 27 SMP Dallara, No. 33 Eurasia Ligier, No. 43 Keating Riley and No. 49 ARC Bratislava Ligier, make their first race starts of the year at Le Mans. None was higher than 18th at the test day.

PREDICTIONS: PICK YOUR ORECA

Oreca seems poised to add a win for the Oreca 07 to its last two with the 05 and complete a Le Mans three-peat. The harder part is which of those 14, the 12 standard Orecas or two rebadged Alpines, to pick.

G-Drive’s No. 26 car has come up short of Le Mans glory in recent years, but is consistently a contender whatever team is running it; this year, it’s TDS. TDS’ own car, the No. 28 car, has Collard’s eternal Le Mans experience at its disposal with Vaxiviere hungry to shine after being sidelined at Spa owing to a right foot fracture.

Is the Jackie Chan DC team ready to win its biggest race? I’d look for Brundle and Jarvis to throw down some fliers but I’m not convinced yet either car can put it all together for the triumph. Having Jota Sport, a past Le Mans winner with the “Mighty 38” Zytek 015S, in its corner will help, but the lineups may not yet be sorted to win.

Repeats at Le Mans are hard in this class, which for me, rules out the No. 36 Signatech Alpine entry despite one of the best lineups in class. The sister No. 35 car has two Silver drivers, which is hard to overcome.

The DragonSpeed team, via either its own No. 21 or the G-Drive No. 22 car, is poised to throw its hat into the ring. Rosenqvist and Hanley together could produce some magic and in the sister car, there’s no real “am” driver – Rojas is a past star in GRAND-AM, Hirakawa will be keen to show Toyota made a mistake by passing him up for an LMP1 seat and Gutierrez is well-positioned as another open-wheel convert who could star.

But to me, it feels Rebellion’s year, from the adopting of the Michel Valliante branding and takeover of the car to the two lineups they have on board. While the No. 13 car is also intriguing, there’s just something about a Prost and Senna, combined, standing on the top of the Le Mans podium together that is such a tantalizing prospect to think about – and Canal is a three-time Le Mans class winner in GTE-Am and GT1, so he knows how to get it done.

SPA, BELGIUM – MAY 6: In this handout image provided by Red Bull, #31 Vaillante Rebeliion LMP2 driver Bruno Senna (C) of Brazil reacts while talking with a crew member during the 6 Hours of Spa-Francorchamps, the second round of the 2017 FIA World Endurance Championship’s at Spa-Francorchamps Circuit on May 6, 2017 in Spa, Belgium. (Photo by Dean Treml/Red Bull via Getty Images)

Verstappen hoping for unofficial ‘home GP’ boost at Spa

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Max Verstappen’s 2017 Formula 1 season has been blighted by unreliability and inconsistency, but the 19-year-old Dutchman will be hoping the closest thing to a home race for him – this weekend’s Belgian Grand Prix at Circuit de Spa-Francorchamps – can provide a boost to kickstart his season.

While he’s often been quicker than Red Bull Racing teammate Daniel Ricciardo in qualifying this year, races have often gone begging for Verstappen as he only has a single podium finish, third in China in April.

Verstappen’s Belgian record isn’t ideal with an eighth place in 2015 at Toro Rosso and a ragged 11th last year in his first Spa drive with Red Bull. But as the unofficial “home favorite” this weekend, the track not far from his home country of the Netherlands, Verstappen is optimistic for a big race.

“I can’t wait to get to Spa this year. I just love the track and it’ll be nice seeing so many orange fans in the grandstands,” he said ahead of the weekend in the team’s pre-race advance.

“Spa is my favorite track of the year. You have to get everything right but when you get a good lap it’s very rewarding. There is a good flow with the fast corners and of course the best moment is Eau Rouge where you go up the hill, even though it’s easy full throttle in modern F1 cars it’s still very nice when the underneath of the car touches the tarmac and then gets very light at the top of the hill. This year it’s going to be a bit faster everywhere with the new cars which will be more challenging and more fun for sure.

“It definitely feels like a home Grand Prix for me because it’s so close to the border and as there isn’t a Dutch race at the moment a lot of Dutch fans are coming over. Already last year there were a lot of orange T-shirts and flags around the track which was very cool to see and makes it even more special.”

Teammate Ricciardo won his third Grand Prix here in 2014 and rallied to second place last year.

Times for this weekend’s Belgian Grand Prix across the NBC Sports Group networks are linked here.

IndyCar: Pocono Recap

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LONG POND, Pa. – Sunday’s ABC Supply 500, the 14th of 17 races this season, marked the fifth Verizon IndyCar Series event at the “Tricky Triangle” that is Pocono Raceway since the series made its return in 2013 after a 24-year hiatus.

Since returning to the schedule, it became evident very quickly that this would be a strong venue for IndyCar, and one that would produce great racing.

Sunday’s race was yet more evidence of that. Below is a recap of what was a wild Sunday in the Pocono mountains.

THE BEST RACE OF THE YEAR?

Different people will offer different opinions about what constitutes a great race. Some will say it’s about several drivers battling it out for the lead in a constant slip-streaming duel. Some will say you only need two drivers pushing each other to the very limit of performance for them and their cars to have an exciting show. Some will also say strategy needs to play role, as it involves everyone on the team playing a role and could result in a surprise winner.

Sunday’s race had all of those elements and more.

The racing was manic from the get-go, with the 22-car field going 7-wide on the initial start behind pole sitter Takuma Sato.

Helio Castroneves went from 20th to 10th on the opening lap. Josef Newgarden, too, was a big mover on the opening lap, jumping up to seventh after starting 14th. Ryan Hunter-Reay gained six spots in the first seven laps, up to 15th from 21st. By contrast, pole sitter Sato and eighth-starting Gabby Chaves dropped down the order to 13th and 22nd, respectively, by Lap 10.

Tony Kanaan and Graham Rahal had maybe the best battle for the lead we’ve seen all year, as they swapped the lead multiple times before finishing fifth and ninth.

Even Esteban Gutierrez, in his first start on a 2.5-mile oval, was in the mix before dropping out after brushing the wall. As shown below, Gutierrez made a slick four-wide pass on the front straightaway in the early laps.

That trend of drivers moving up continued through the day, with Hunter-Reay going from 21st on the grid to eventually lead laps before finishing eighth. And eventual winner Will Power and runner-up Josef Newgarden each fell back in the field in the middle of the race, Power due to front wing and rear bumper pod damage and Newgarden due to a caution coming out before he pitted, only to work their way back forward.

That’s where the strategy gets in the mix. Power fell off the lead lap after a Lap 67 pit stop to change the front wing, dropping to 21st and last of the cars running at the time, but got back on the lead lap following a Lap 116 caution when Sebastien Saavedra hit the wall exiting Turn 1 and stopped on course. Power stayed out while the leaders pitted, taking a wave around to get his lap back.

While that incident helped Power, it hurt teammate Newgarden, as it occurred during a cycle of green flag stops and Newgarden was one of a handful of drivers who hadn’t pitted. He briefly fell back to 11th.

As a result, both drivers were at the back of the lead lap, but a Lap 125 caution for a crash involving James Hinchcliffe and JR Hildebrand opened the door for pit strategy to work in their favor. Both drivers topped up their fuel (on Lap 126) and then Power topped up twice more under the yellow (at Laps 129 and 131), using the caution to also change out the rear wing/bumper pod assembly, which was damaged in the aftermath of the Hinchcliffe/Hildebrand crash. The Penske duo then went significantly longer on their stints than anyone else, with Power especially churning out fast laps above 217 mph to eventually lead by over four seconds when the cycle of pit stops concluded.

Newgarden, too, used that strategy to move back toward the front, emerging from the second-to-last round of pit stops back in the top five. Newgarden then emerged in second after the final stops and ran down Power in a last-ditch effort for the win.

And while Power ultimately kept him and third-placed Alexander Rossi at bay, his aggressive, pre-emptive moves to defend the inside line entering Turn 3 were plenty hair-raising in their own right.

In short, the ABC Supply 500 was an absolute thrill ride, and the numbers back it up. The lead changed hands 42 times, an IndyCar record at Pocono, and 590 on-track passes, 524 for position, were recorded during the 500 miles.

The Indianapolis 500 and Rainguard Water Sealers 600 from Texas Motor Speedway were both hair-raising as well, but sometimes for the wrong seasons as both were blighted by several frightening crashes. Sunday’s affair at Pocono, however, was hair-raising for all the right reasons.

PENSKE DOMINANCE OVERCOMES HONDA POWER

The battle between Chevrolet and Honda has been an intriguing one this year, with each manufacturer demonstrating strengths at certain tracks.

The prevailing thought among many entering the weekend was that Honda would have the upper hand, due to its speedway package and supposed advantage in the horsepower game.

And they were certainly strong, with Honda drivers Alexander Rossi, Tony Kanaan, Scott Dixon, Ryan Hunter-Reay, Graham Rahal, Marco Andretti, and James Hinchcliffe leading 160 of 200 laps.

Yet, it was Team Penske and Chevrolet going 1-2 at the end, with Power’s victory serving as Penske’s fourth win in a row in 2017, the first time they’ve done so since 2012.

Will Power crosses the start/finish line to win the ABC Supply 500 in what was a 1-2 for Team Penske and Chevrolet. Photo: IndyCar

While some may have been surprised that Chevrolet managed victory over Honda this weekend, Power was not one of them. Power even tipped his hand about an engine upgrade that the “bow tie brigade” brought this weekend, which may have paid dividends in the closing stanza of the race.

“You could tell like when we came up here, Chevys were definitely in the game,” Power said in the post-race press conference. “I had a new engine in, so we had a bit of an upgrade. I think the engine was better.”

Power also added that the aerodynamic package this weekend had an impact. “As you saw at Texas, same deal on the superspeedway, it’s a different configuration than Indy. We all have to run the Dallara rear wing, so that seems to even everything out there aerodynamically. But yeah, I think our cars were really good compared to the Honda.”

Power’s win gives Chevrolet eight wins on the year, all from Team Penske, compared to Honda’s six. And the next event, the Bommarito Automotive Group 500 at Gateway Motorsports Park, appears to favor Chevrolet. However, as Pocono indicated, anything can happen, so Honda could certainly steal a win in the right circumstances.

MISC.

  • Ryan Hunter-Reay may have had the drive of the day in getting up front, leading laps, and finishing eighth while nursing injuries from his qualifying crash. Though he did not suffer any serious injuries, Hunter-Reay was certainly in pain on Sunday and put in an ironman-like effort to run as well as he did.
  • Pole sitter Takuma Sato was mysteriously never a factor, and never actually led a lap as Tony Kanaan passed him to lead Lap 1. Sato then quickly dropped down the order and finished a lowly 13th.
  • Carlos Munoz finished tenth at Pocono, his fourth top ten of the year, which gives a nice jolt to an A.J. Foyt Enterprises team that has struggled to get both cars at the sharp end of the field on a regular basis.
  • Gabby Chaves and Harding Racing finished a quiet 15th on Sunday, their worst finish in three races this season. However, for a team that’s still very new to the racing business, simply finishing the race and running all the laps is a noteworthy accomplishment in and of itself. Though things are far from finalized, Chaves and Harding are hopeful to be full-time entrants next year.
  • In a bit of late-breaking news from earlier this morning, Jack Harvey will contest the final two races of 2017 in the No. 7 Honda for Schmidt Peterson Motorsports. Sebastian Saavedra filled in at Pocono, finishing 21st after early contact with the Turn 1 wall, and will also race at Gateway next weekend.

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F1 launches official eSports competition

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Formula 1 is going virtual in a way it hasn’t previously, with an official F1 eSports competition launched today for competitors using Codemasters’ F1 2017 game (launches on Friday, August 25).

The eSports series will run from September to November, with the first F1 virtual world champion to be crowned the Monday after the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix.

Per the official f1esports.com site, which launched today, qualifying will take place Sept. 4 at the Monza and Suzuka circuits before the semifinal occurs on Sept. 10, and will see 40 drivers race from the Gfinity esports arena in London to cut the field to 20. The two-day final occurs in Abu Dhabi in November.

Users of the Xbox One, PlayStation 4 and PC (steam) platforms are eligible to enter.

This new series represents “an amazing opportunity for our business: strategically and in the way we engage fans,” said Sean Bratches, Managing Director, Commercial Operations of F1, via Reuters.

The esports arena has recently emerged in racing with competitions such as McLaren’s The World’s Fastest Gamer sim racing program, CJ Wilson Racing’s 570 Challenge (with McLaren; team also held a Cayman Cup challenge in 2016) and Formula E’s eraces, which are often part of an ePrix weekend. Formula E held a standalone erace in Las Vegas earlier this year.

Still, this marks a big step for F1 to formally sign off with it in this partnership with Codemasters and Gfinity.

Hinchcliffe’s epic save goes for naught after crash with Hildebrand (VIDEO)

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James Hinchcliffe had hoped for Pocono Raceway to be a place to turn around sagging fortunes in his Verizon IndyCar Series season, and for most of the first half of the race it looked that way.

From 12th on the grid, his Schmidt Peterson Motorsports crew delivered him an early excellent stop that vaulted him five positions – 10th to fifth – on Lap 26. With a risky but good low downforce setup, Hinchcliffe continued to advance forward and was into the lead by Lap 86.

But shortly thereafter Hinchcliffe locked up his tires on another stop, having overshot his box, and dropped back.

What followed in the next few laps shifted from heroic to gut-wrenching in the span of one caution.

Hinchcliffe somehow, miraculously, saved his No. 5 Arrow Electronics Schmidt Peterson Motorsports Honda through Turn 1 when in traffic past the halfway point. While outside of Carlos Munoz on Lap 102, Hinchcliffe washed up and somehow saved his car at more than 200 mph.

“I was at Grandview Speedway watching a dirt race the other night so I guess I learned some tips,” Hinchcliffe joked to NBCSN’s Robin Miller when describing how on earth he hung on.

Alas, it all came unglued for him a bit later after teammate Sebastian Saavedra wasn’t so lucky in Turn 1, having pancaked the wall with his No. 7 Lucas Oil SPM Honda on Lap 116.

Following the restart, Hinchcliffe washed up into JR Hildebrand on Lap 125, which took his longtime friend and competitor in the No. 21 Fuzzy’s Vodka Chevrolet, with the two cars both having heavy contact.

Hinchcliffe took the blame after the incident, but even Hildebrand felt apologetic as well.

“It was a racing deal. There were a bunch of guys two wide (ahead); I was on inside of JR,” Hinchcliffe told Miller. “There was a bunch of understeer, and it pitched him sideways.

“Ultimately it’s my fault because we shouldn’t have been back there. Guys had a killer first stop. Had a really good race going, but I screwed up on the stop.”

The incident for Hildebrand capped off a tough weekend where he was slowest qualifier, but started 19th ahead of three drivers – teammate and team owner Ed Carpenter, Helio Castroneves and Ryan Hunter-Reay – who were unable to complete or make qualifying attempts.

“We ran two-wide, and the guys in front of us went two-wide. I had a bunch of push. It wasn’t leaving enough room,” Hildebrand said.

“We fought the car all day. We made good fuel economy. It’s frustrating to have it end that way. And it’s a bummer to have it take out Hinch that way. We tried to find it; tried to tune the car. But it wasn’t quite there. Maybe it would have been towards the end. A really unfortunate way to end a tough weekend. We’ll get through it.”

If there’s a saving grace for Hildebrand ahead of next week’s race at Gateway Motorsports Park, it’s that the Ed Carpenter Racing team’s best performances of 2017 have come on short ovals, and Hildebrand has scored two podium finishes at Phoenix (third place) and Iowa (second).

For Hinchcliffe, Gateway represents the final oval for the SPM team to get some kind of result – his 10th place at Iowa is the team’s only top-10 result in the five oval races this season.