(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)

Alonso, Vandoorne’s Azerbaijan GP grid drops grow through Saturday

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Stoffel Vandoorne and Fernando Alonso’s Formula 1 grid penalties for Sunday’s Azerbaijan Grand Prix grew through Saturday as the stewards confirmed both McLaren drivers had taken additional power unit parts ahead of qualifying.

Vandoorne and Alonso entered the Baku race weekend anticipating grid penalties after replacing parts on their Honda power units, which have lacked both reliability and performance throughout the season.

Both drivers were handed 15-place drops on Friday ahead of practice due to initial changes, only to receive further drops in the lead up to qualifying.

Alonso currently sits with a 40-place drop to his name after an overhaul of his power unit, while Vandoorne is to drop 35 places after also taking a gearbox change before qualifying.

McLaren ailed to its worst qualifying display of the season so far in Baku as both Alonso and Vandoorne dropped out in Q1, finishing 16th and 19th respectively.

However, Alonso was not too disheartened by the result, saying it has set McLaren up nicely for the race on Sunday.

“We did a good job today in terms of preparing for the race: we only used one set of tires, put in low fuel and did some checks,” the Spaniard said.

“We know we’re not competitive around here, but the race is going to be long and demanding. We’ve seen many mistakes from almost every driver, and we need to avoid making any of those tomorrow.

“In these kinds of grands prix, we need to try and finish the race, get some data for the team, and keep developing the car.

“We need to make sure we keep away from the walls tomorrow. Let’s also hope we can end up in the points.”

Due to a strange quirk in the regulations, Alonso and Vandoorne will not share the back row of the grid in Baku – and the latter will, in fact, gain a place.

As Renault’s Jolyon Palmer failed to post a time during Q1 and therefore did not qualify for the race, he will start P20.

By virtue of having a greater grid drop than Vandoorne, Alonso will take 19th on the grid, with the Belgian starting just ahead in P18.

Stroll feeling ‘comfortable’, ‘confident’ in car after Baku Q3 run

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Lance Stroll delivered the most impressive qualifying run of his fledgling Formula 1 career so far in Baku on Saturday, charging to eighth place on the grid for Williams.

Stroll, 18, made his F1 debut at the beginning of the year with Williams after stepping up from Formula 3, but endured a baptism of fire as he failed to score any points through his opening six outings.

The Canadian charged to his maiden points finish last time out at his home race in Montreal, finishing ninth overall, and carried that momentum through to qualifying for the Azerbaijan Grand Prix.

Stroll reached Q3 for the second time, beating his Chinese Grand Prix display by taking eighth spot, as well as outqualifying teammate Felipe Massa for the first time.

“It was a good day, and it has been a good weekend. I am comfortable and confident in the car,” Stroll said.

“I like the circuit and today everything fell into place. I missed a bit in Q3, and I think there was some more that was possible there, as we were four-tenths off compared to my lap in Q2.

“In Q3, because the track temperatures had dropped, it was hard to get the tires ready in one lap and also because of the red flag, we only had time to do one push lap.

“Sometimes around here it is better when you do one push lap, then another prep lap and then another push lap. But it is still a great result and I am just happy for the team.”

Red Bull’s high hopes come down to earth in F1 qualifying

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BAKU, Azerbaijan (AP) Red Bull’s high hopes for the Azerbaijan Grand Prix came crashing down in qualifying on Saturday.

Max Verstappen qualified in fifth and teammate Daniel Ricciardo only 10th after clipping a barrier near the end coming out of Turn 6 on a hazardous Baku street circuit that has been causing problems all week.

“I’m not blaming the car. The rear went away a bit,” Ricciardo said. “Just the consequence of trying to get a bit more out of the car. I guess I was just chasing that little bit too much.”

It was disappointing for the team, considering that Red Bull had been showing promising speed, with Verstappen fastest in both practice sessions on Friday.

“The 10th (place) today doesn’t reflect it, but it’s definitely been a positive weekend in terms of the car feel and the progress we’re making,” Ricciardo said. “Relative to Ferrari it looks like we’ve closed the gap (in terms of speed).”

Red Bull was not the only team struggling on the sinewy, hard-braking track, which made its F1 debut last year.

“We’re all still experimenting,” Ricciardo said. “Still trying to find the sweet spot.”

Verstappen thought he found it on Friday, driving with his customary confidence to lead P1 and P2, then got a reality check on Saturday when his car packed up near the end of the third practice due to a hydraulics issue.

“We had to wind the engine down, which cost me quite a bit of lap time,” the Dutchman said. “It’s a bit unfortunate that we couldn’t extract more out of the car.”

Verstappen was second fastest behind Lewis Hamilton in the first part of qualifying, before fading in Q2 and Q3.

“We should be ahead (of Ferrari) without all those things that happened,” said Verstappen, who believes Red Bull can match Ferrari. “It’s looking a lot better. Mercedes is a bit too quick but with the Ferraris, for sure, we can fight.”

Verstappen could do with a good result in Baku on Sunday.

Last year, he became the youngest F1 driver to win a race and to qualify on the front row. But this season he has only one podium and failed to finish three races including the last, the Canadian GP two weeks ago.

Honda working on IndyCar engine fix following parts issue

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ELKHART LAKE, Wis. – The blessing and curse of Honda Performance Development (HPD)’s improved performance and horsepower this year has been a tradeoff in the reliability department.

With now double digit failures over the last month or so, in Indianapolis and elsewhere, it’s been a season where reliability has become more of a story line than normal.

This has arisen though Honda’s on-track performance this year has seen the manufacturer deliver five wins (three more than in all of 2016) including the Indianapolis 500, with four of its five teams winning races thus far in nine races.

HPD President Art St. Cyr addressed both the failures and the recent successes Honda has achieved in the last month during a media availability Saturday at Road America, noting it was a parts processing issue that has contributed to some, if not all, failures.

“We had a couple engine failures over the last month or so,” St. Cyr said. “We have done a lot of analysis. It was actually pretty deep in our engine and the part that failed is one that we’ve been using for quite a while. Ultimately, it came down to a parts processing issue for that. So we have been able to identify the part that is failing.

“We have some fixes in place for the rest of this year. As it stands right now, we’re getting those parts into HPD at this point and we’re starting to build new engines with those parts in it. Unfortunately, the durability plan that we always had, going 2,500 miles, it’s going to take a while to cycle those engines into our pool.

“We hope to have those engines into our spares pool, optimistically by Iowa, but more realistically by Toronto.”

HPD does not plan to do a wholesale changeout of engines, St. Cyr intimated.

“There is no plan right now to a wholesale change out engines,” he said. “It happens in about one out of every eight engines, and if it does fail, it fails early. So when that problem arises, it shows up pretty quick.

“So, our expectations are that, once we get the engines in the spares pool, we will continue the engines that are in the cars throughout the remainder of their lives. And then those will be replaced with new engines.

“Knock on wood, hopefully we can get some of them in at Iowa, but more realistically, probably Toronto is when they’ll really start to show up.”

St. Cyr confirmed HPD has made a horsepower increase this year though would not be pressed on how much that increase has been.

“When you make more horsepower, you do expose parts to more stresses. That’s the fundamental thing about it,” he said.

“In this particular case, what it did was reduced our safety factor on that particular part. It still should have been fine, but the problem is that part of the process in the engine is the stress riser. It’s not in every engine, but it on a handful of engines.

“Yes, the increase in power is a contributing factor to that, because obviously there’s more stress on the engines, but the way the part if designed it should have been able to sustain that stress.”

He also said the company was happy with the tradeoff that has come with Takuma Sato’s win in the Indianapolis 500. That win made him a “popular winner” both in America and Japan as a result of his victory, helping both Honda arms.

“In general, our main goal is to win the Indy 500. We knew that, even if we ran the engines at full power, that the majority of our engines were going to make it,” St. Cyr explained.

“So, in that case, we were willing to make that tradeoff on that. If it was going to fail every engine, then maybe not, but ever circumstance is different. But, in this particular case, we were willing to make that.

“You risk that every year. Typically, both manufacturers have about two mechanical failure. That’s about what had this year anyway. We’ll make those judgments on a case-by-case basis.”

Heading into Road America this weekend for the KOHLER Grand Prix (Sunday, 12:30 p.m. ET, NBCSN), Honda leads Chevrolet, 737 to 698, in the Manufacturer’s Championship. Chevrolet has won all five in a row from 2012 through 2016 since the reintroduction of manufacturer competition.