Photo courtesy United Autosports

Rayhall: A win that sticks at Paul Ricard!

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Editor’s note: Sean Rayhall, one of America’s rising driving talents, will file a series of blogs throughout the year chronicling his season in the European Le Mans Series, co-driving with John Falb at Zak Brown and Richard Dean’s United Autosports team in its Ligier JS P3. His fourth blog recaps a return to the top of the standings at Circuit Paul Ricard in France (previous blogs are linked here; SilverstoneLe Mans, Red Bull Ring). 

So, we’ve got some good news to kick off this past race at Paul Ricard. They didn’t take this one away!

John and I arrived on Tuesday in order to test Wednesday, which was successful, but also forced us into a very risky call for the race week ahead. We realized the tire degradation was the worst we’ve ever seen, and the series only allocates us three sets for the entire race weekend.

So we made the decision to do the mandatory laps required within the 110 percent rule of the best lap time in order to meet the regulations, as well as scuff the tires pre-race to have an extra set to utilize during the race. This was risky and actually went both ways by the end of the weekend.

Qualifying came and the pressure was definitely on to slot into a good position. That being said, we were rolling off after not driving for a three days, and now we had to throw down in just 10 minutes. We ended up qualifying P5 on our second flying lap, when we called in to not abuse the tires. To be honest, under those circumstances P5 felt like a win for us, and we were very happy to be in that kind of position for race time.

Next we had to make a call to go low or high downforce. We had been running low but it was a huge question of whether the tires could handle it on full fuel for two hours. We didn’t have any great data saying that high downforce would work, so we went with what we knew.

The start was pretty crazy and we made up a few positions, but the tires didn’t like the low downforce setup at all, and we fell back to seventh where we settled in. I faced the two toughest stints of my life ahead, but I knew if we just got the best out of what we had, we were going to have a good shot at the podium.

For the second stint a yellow came out right in time for us to do a long stop and give me another set of scuffed tires where the car came alive. This was huge, as within the next 10 minutes we were leading and gapping the field.

Photo courtesy United Autosports

I pitted with a 30-second lead and handed the car over to John, where he was able to have a mistake-free race with amazing pace given the circumstances on how sketchy the car was to drive on low downforce. There were a few people faster than us this race but ultimately hard work and consistency paid off and we were able to win by around five seconds!

We gambled hard by not practicing, which could have allowed us to see how important the high downforce setup was and save our tires. Still, we were able to pull off another win and get a small points lead!

Following this win, going home wasn’t quite on the table. After landing in Atlanta, I’ve come up to Mont-Tremblant to coach in Corsa Pilota. It’s hard not to be thankful for all the work and the opportunities!

I have to thank John Falb for his amazing drive, United Autosports for working hard and our entire team for having that never-give-up attitude all week! We all had faith in each other, and extracted the best out of our situation! Thank you as well to SportsInsure and Aero Paint for keeping us on track! Thanks for reading and talk to you after Spa!

Photo courtesy United Autosports

F1 Preview: 2018 Australian Grand Prix

Photo: Getty Images
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Save for two occasions, in 2006, and 2010, the Australian Grand Prix has served as the season-opening event for the FIA Formula 1 World Championship since 1996, and this weekend’s event will be the 21st time that the city of Melbourne has kicked off the Formula 1 campaign.

The 2018 season is the fifth one of the current hybrid power unit era, the second season of the current aero regulations, and the second under Liberty Media’s guidance.

Last year saw titans Mercedes AMG Petronas and Scuderia Ferrari duel for supremacy for most of the season before Mercedes distanced Ferrari late in the season to take the constructor’s title and the driver’s title, with Lewis Hamilton, who is now tied with Sebastian Vettel on four world championships apiece.

Four drivers on the grid have Formula 1 world championships to their name: Hamilton, Vettel, Kimi Raikkonen, and Fernando Alonso. Scuderia Toro Rosso’s Brendon Hartley also has a world championship to his name as a two-time titlist in the FIA World Endurance Championship.

So, what can viewers expect from the 2018 curtain-raiser in Australia? A handful of things to watch are below?

2018 Australian Grand Prix – Talking Points

Does Anyone Have Anything for Mercedes?

Only on one day during pre-season testing did a Mercedes driver lead the way – Lewis Hamilton was fastest on the final day of Week 1 at the Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya.

However, all indications were that was by design, with the team focusing the majority of the second week, if not the entire second week, on long runs with their W09 EQ Power+ chassis.

Such a decision is an ominous one, in that it indicates the team is very comfortable with the amount of speed in the car and did not see a need, or desire, to show their hand during testing.

With that in mind, the Mercedes duo of Hamilton and Valtteri Bottas may yet again have the best and fastest cars, and the team looks poised to potentially make it five constructor’s and driver’s championships in a row.

Ferrari and Red Bull Look to End Mercedes Reign

The biggest threats to Mercedes are undoubtedly Ferrari and Red Bull, the only other teams to win in 2017.

And both teams displayed a lot of pace during testing, particularly in the “one-lap speed” category. Ricciardo set a lap record around the Catalunya circuit during the second week, only for Vettel to supplant that mark later in the week. Teammate Kimi Raikkonen led the way during the final day of testing.

It is unknown how that pace will translate over the course of a race distance. Mercedes appeared to have an edge on both Ferrari and Red Bull over long runs and race simulations, but there is also a theory that neither Ferrari nor Red Bull had their true long-run form on display.

Still, if a team is going to knock off Mercedes, it will likely be either Ferrari or Red Bull.

McLaren on the Rebound?

Put simply, the previous three seasons for McLaren F1 Team were a bit of a disaster. Their partnership with Honda yielded point totals of 27 (2015), 76 (2016), and 30 (2017) in a three-year venture that was defined by poor reliability and underwhelming power.

The relationship hit a boiling point last year and both entities parted ways ahead of the 2018 season, with McLaren signing a new power unit deal with Renault.

Testing went better than in previous years, though the team continued to battle reliability problems. However, all issues appeared to be minor, needling issues rather than more significant, foundational problems, as the other Renault teams (Red Bull and Renault Sport F1 Team) had solid runs with few reliability issues.

The car does appear to have speed in it, so if the reliability problems are behind them, McLaren could be in for a rebound season.

Stuck in the Midfield Again

Formula 1’s battle amongst the midfield is set to be as fierce as ever as a host of a several teams have a chance at being “best of the rest.”

Sahara Force India has been the frontrunner from the the midfield teams each of the last two years, finishing fourth in the constructor’s title in both 2016 and 2017, though if the steady conflict between drivers Esteban Ocon and Sergio Perez continues through 2018, it could hamper their efforts significantly.

Renault Sport F1 Team and Haas F1 Team look to improve on their 2017 form, while Toro Rosso is in a new partnership with Honda power units…and has experienced a surprisingly smooth pre-season as Honda’s 2018 platform looks significantly better, with the team enjoying a solid run of testing with few, if any, reliability problems.

Williams Martini Racing and Alfa Romeo Sauber appear to be at the back of the pack entering the season, but both could battle for points finishes if those ahead of them falter.