Photo: Toyota

Le Mans: Pre-race post roundup, notes and quick race preview

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Here’s a quick roundup of posts from the week leading into the 24 Hours of Le Mans and a few key things to look forward to in this weekend’s 85th 24 Hours of Le Mans:

Here’s the provisional starting grid.

PREVIEW

The race from an overall standpoint has a rather simple story line: Either Toyota finally breaks through after years of heartbreak, that culminated with its final 10 minute failure last year, or it doesn’t. The Toyota TS050 Hybrid has the clear one-lap pace and Kamui Kobayashi threw down an absolutely amazing pole lap; Toyota will look to translate that over 24 hours. It’s never that simple, of course, and Porsche will play the long game to hope its Porsche 919 Hybrids can overcome the pace deficit.

In LMP2, higher than expected top speeds have the ability to wreak havoc on the rest of the field. How well will the LMP2s and LMP1s interact together in traffic? Will the performance capabilities of the new LMP2 cars outperform the abilities of some of the drivers in them? Which Oreca wins? OK, we’re hoping it’s not a complete Oreca whitewash but all indications are it will be one of the 14 combined Oreca 07/Alpine A470 chassis that will win in this class.

GTE-Pro, fortunately, seems a bit less settled with Aston Martin and Ferrari locking out the first two rows and Ford and Corvette just behind. Porsche is slightly further back but not out of it either. After last year’s two-horse race between Ford and Ferrari, it looks set to be a proper fight here.

The same is true in GTE-Am, with a surprise pole coming for the sole Corvette in that class, but its one-lap pace may be limited as the race goes on with two gentlemen drivers alongside. There’s still a good potential seven or eight winners here in the 16-car class.

The four IndyCar drivers of note we’re following look to shine in their stints – Scott Dixon, Tony Kanaan and Mikhail Aleshin add Le Mans to their busy schedules while Townsend Bell looks to defend his class victory in GTE-Am.

Add in Rubens Barrichello making his debut, a host of IMSA stars including both Taylor brothers in the field, the number of Formula E drivers back in sports cars and some other Mazda Road to Indy graduates in their first race and there’s plenty of drivers with story lines to watch.

The race kicks off at 3 p.m. local time and 9 a.m. ET.

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.