Townsend Bell

Photo: Scuderia Corsa

Bell podiums, Ford Ganassi IndyCar stars end midpack at Le Mans

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The 85th running of the 24 Hours of Le Mans proved to be a challenging race for representatives from the Verizon IndyCar Series. However, one did finish on the podium in his class, while all four of them saw the checkered flag at the end.

The best finishing in class was NBCSN IndyCar analyst Townsend Bell, who finished on the podium in the GTE Am class in the No. 62 WeatherTech-backed Ferrari 488 GTE for Scuderia Corsa.

With co-drivers Cooper MacNeil and Bill Sweedler, the trio managed to avoid a lot of the chaos that surrounded this year’s Le Mans to emerge third in class (30th overall), with the car never having significant issues at any point during the 24-hour endurance race.

Of note: this marks the third consecutive class podium for Bell and Sweedler, who also won last year’s 24 Hours of Le Mans in the GTE Am class, while MacNeil scored his first ever podium at the endurance classic.

“Wow, what a race,” Bell said. “I spent a lot of time in the car over the 24 hours. The car was nearly as good at the end as it was when I started it. Thanks to WeatherTech for being with us this weekend and to the whole Scuderia Corsa crew and the team from Kessel. We had a great combination of drivers and support here all week.”

Sweedler added, “It is magical to get here again and do well. Three runs here and three podiums, two third place finishes and a win is incredible. The WeatherTech Racing Ferrari was incredible. The Scuderia Corsa team did a great job. Townsend did monster stints and Cooper did a great job as well. What a day!”

Of his maiden Le Mans podium, MacNeil said, “We ran a really clean race. We only had a couple of minor issues all race. I ran clean and didn’t put a wheel wrong all and that is how you have to run here at Le Mans. We gave it all we had. We ran to plan, did the stops and driver changes and ran our race. We kept it clean and the great work from the Scuderia Corsa and Kessel guys got us up on the podium. The WeatherTech Racing Ferrari ran great the entire 24 hours.”

Ford Chip Ganassi Racing saw two of its IndyCar stars make the trip over, with Tony Kanaan taking Sebastien Bourdais’ place in the No. 68 driver lineup, joining defending GTE Pro winners Joey Hand and Dirk Mueller, while Scott Dixon partnered Richard Westbrook and Ryan Briscoe in the No. 69.

Photo: Ford Performance

With GTE Pro proving the most intense of the four classes, the Ford GTs stayed in contention for much of the race, but ultimately faded at the end despite finishing on the same lap as the winning No. 97 Aston Martin Racing Vantage V8.

Kanaan managed to finish sixth in class (23rd overall), with Dixon right behind him (seventh in class, 24th overall).

Photo: Ford Performance

Mueller described the race, and Kanaan’s debut, for the No. 68 entry: “Congratulations to the No. 67 crew for a fantastic second-place finish,” Müller said. “We know how it feels to make it on to the podium. It’s a good feeling. We were hit with so many things during the race. Joey did a good job and definitely Tony Kanaan. (Adding him to the lineup) was such a rush. We arrived here on Tuesday morning and from that moment on it all went so fast. He gave everything for us and we made a good team.”

In the prototype ranks, Mikhail Aleshin joined Sergey Sirotkin and Viktor Shaytar in the No. 37 Dallara P217 Gibson for SMP Racing. After suffering mechanical problems, the no. 37 car could do no better than 17th in class (34th overall) after falling 36 laps behind the winning No. 38 Jackie Chan DC Racing Oreca 07 Gibson. However, Aleshin, Sirotkin, and Shaytar did complete the 24-hour distance, despite their problems.

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Bell leads IndyCar contingent in Le Mans qualifying

Photo: Scuderia Corsa
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Although he hasn’t been in a Verizon IndyCar Series race this year, NBCSN IndyCar analyst Townsend Bell was best of those actively involved in the 2017 IndyCar season in qualifying for Saturday’s 24 Hours of Le Mans.

Bell qualified third in the GTE-Am class in the No. 62 WeatherTech-backed Ferrari 488 GTE for Scuderia Corsa, which he shares with Bill Sweedler and Cooper MacNeil. Bell and Sweedler are seeking to defend their class victory here last year, which they accomplished co-driving with Jeff Segal in the previous generation Ferrari F458 Italia.

As there are eight 488s in the 16-car GTE-Am class, this Scuderia Corsa Ferrari has been the best of them both at the Le Mans Test Day and in qualifying. Bell’s best time of 3:53.312 was about a half second off class polesitter Fernando Rees, in the No. 50 Larbre Competition Corvette C7.R, at 3:52.886. Bell has completed 32 laps this week.

“Qualifying went well,” Bell said. “We made our first change to the car to make it go quicker and that is exactly what it did tonight. It improved the balance and that made a small improvement, but around this long track that makes a big difference. Bill and Cooper did some strong laps and are comfortable in the car, which is what is important. To be starting third and the fastest Ferrari says a lot about our effort here this week.”

Beyond Bell, there’s three active drivers competing in IndyCar this season who are racing at Le Mans this week, two in the GTE-Pro class and one in LMP2.

Scott Dixon is best of that group as he’ll start fifth in GTE-Pro in the No. 69 Ford Chip Ganassi Team USA Ford GT which he shares with Ryan Briscoe and Richard Westbrook. This trio finished third here last year, with Dixon setting the fastest race lap in class on his Le Mans debut.

Briscoe, an IndyCar veteran from 2005 through 2015, set the car’s best qualifying time of 3:51.232. The class pole time is Darren Turner in the No. 97 Aston Martin Vantage V8 at 3:50.837.

“We definitely had a go at qualifying tonight,” Briscoe said. “It was the first time we ran with new tires and low fuel and we’ve always found this car comes alive when we drop the fuel out of it, so it felt great. The balance was nice. We got one of those good laps at Le Mans where you get a tow and don’t get held up with any traffic and piece it together. I was really pleased, but obviously there’s a lot of competition. It was quick at the time but we’re fifth now so I think it’s going to be a tough race and hopefully we’ll have the pace to stay at the front during the race.”

Dixon’s best time this week in 29 total laps is a 3:52.807, set in the second of three qualifying sessions. Westbrook’s is a 3:52.496. Dixon also got to catch up with Ford World Rallycross driver Ken Block at Le Mans.

The No. 68 Ford, the defending class winner here, will launch its defense from 12th on the 13-car grid. IndyCar 20th year man but Le Mans rookie Tony Kanaan shares that car with Joey Hand and Dirk Mueller, Kanaan deputizing for the injured Sebastien Bourdais.

Kanaan’s best lap this week is a 3:53.512. The Brazilian completed 15 laps in the first four-hour free practice session and nine more laps since, so he has a total of 24 before warmup on Saturday morning.

Mikhail Aleshin also saddles up for his third consecutive Le Mans, this time in SMP Racing’s new Dallara P217 Gibson in LMP2 with Sergey Sirotkin and Victor Shaitar.

Aleshin’s best time of 3:27.782 has put the No. 27 car 10th on the LMP2 class grid, and 16th overall, first non-Oreca 07 (or the rebadged Alpine A470 variant) on the grid. In the all-Russian lineup, the Schmidt Peterson Motorsports IndyCar driver has driven only 24 laps this week.

MAZDA ROAD TO INDY ROOKIE QUARTET DEBUTS

There’s also four recent Mazda Road to Indy presented by Cooper Tires graduates making their debuts at Le Mans, in Andre Negrao, Felix Rosenqvist, Will Owen and Jose Gutierrez, who’ve competed in either Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires or Pro Mazda Championship Presented by Cooper Tires in recent years.

Those cars will line up 14th, 20th, 21st and 22nd overall, eighth, 14th, 15th and 16th in the LMP2 class. Negrao is in the No. 35 Signatech Alpine A470 Gibson with Nelson Panciatici and Pierre Ragues, Gutierrez is in the DragonSpeed-run No. 22 Oreca 07 he shares with Ryo Hirakawa and Memo Rojas, Owen in the best of seven Ligier JS P217 chassis, the No. 32 United Autosports entry he shares with Filipe Albuquerque and Hugo de Sadeleer, and Rosenqvist in the DragonSpeed-10 Star No. 21 Oreca 07 with Henrik Hedman and Ben Hanley, an all-rookie lineup.

Negrao’s best time this week is 3:29.248 in 31 laps, Rosenqvist’s is 3:29.777 in just 19 laps, Gutierrez’s is 3:32.406 in 37 laps, and Owen’s is 3:37.469 in 32 laps.

It is worth noting the Oreca has a distinct pace edge in LMP2 over the other three chassis. Aleshin’s Dallara lap of 3:27.782 is the best non-Oreca lap this week, but still 2.43 seconds off Alex Lynn’s pole time of 3:25.352 in the No. 26 G-Drive Racing (TDS) Oreca 07.

Of course there are plenty of others with past IndyCar or Mazda Road to Indy experience in the field but these mentioned above are the most recent and/or are still active within these championships.

This year’s Le Mans race starts Saturday at 3 p.m. local time, 9 a.m. ET, with coverage on the FOX networks and flag-to-flag radio coverage via Radio Le Mans.

WeatherTech Racing solid on day 1 at Le Mans

Photo: WeatherTech Racing
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The WeatherTech Racing trio of Cooper MacNeil, Bill Sweedler, and NBCSN’s Townsend Bell began their 2017 24 Hours of Le Mans venture on Thursday during practice and provisional qualifying, with Sweedler and Bell aiming to repeat their 2016 triumph in the GTE-Am class, done under the Scuderia Corsa banner.

Their No. 62 WeatherTech Racing Ferrari 488 GTE-Am machine ran without incident during six hours of practice before placing ninth on the provisional GTE-Am class grid.

As Sweedler explained, Thursday was about settling into a routine and establishing a baseline. “We were getting the car sorted today. We were fine tuning the setup and getting our compulsory night laps. We are where we were last year and we won the race last year. We are jelling as a team. Cooper is new, but he fits right in and has a lot of confidence in the car. We will do the same tomorrow and be as prepared as we can be for the race on Saturday.”

Bell added that he had to reacclimate himself with driving at night, and he even made a couple little mistakes involving the cockpit lights and headlights.

“We were getting acclimated to running this new car at night. I forgot to turn on the cockpit lights and then shut the headlights off on the Mulsanne going into the first chicane. It is good to thrash through it and get those things out of the way,” Bell revealed. “This place is intimidating at night, it is a completely different world out there when it gets dark. The balance of the Ferrari is terrific. It is a good race car. Just to have the time to make the little mistakes now is helpful.”

MacNeil, the newest member of the team, who has competed at Le Mans twice in 2013 and 2014, emphasized that making it through the day cleanly was a vital part of their Thursday effort.

“The first day was good. All three of us kept the car clean, away from contact and on the track,” MacNeil detailed. “It is always good when you have a nice clean day of practice. That saves the car and saves the work for the crew. They work hard and don’t need any unnecessary effort going into 24 hours of racing. All three of us ran solid quick laps. I am looking forward to tomorrow.”

WeatherTech Racing resumes their effort on Friday with second official practice.

 

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Townsend Bell previews a lap of Le Mans on simulator (VIDEO)

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NBCSN Verizon IndyCar Series analyst Townsend Bell is going for an encore win at the 24 Hours of Le Mans with Scuderia Corsa, co-driving the No. 62 WeatherTech-sponsored Ferrari 488 GTE with Bill Sweedler and Cooper MacNeil.

After returning from the Le Mans Test Day on June 4, Bell stopped by CXC Simulations to complete a simulator lap of the 8.4-mile Circuit de la Sarthe in the Motion Pro II simulator and the iRacing.com lap of the track. The video is above.

“There is no other track like Le Mans,” Bell said in a release. “It is an incredibly demanding, long and fast circuit. And because it is essentially a temporary circuit, made up of a combination of permanent circuit and country roads, it really puts testing and practice time at a premium.

“Last week, I joined my teammates in the Scuderia Corsa Ferrari for the one-day Le Mans test day. Even though the test went well I’m always searching for ways to be better prepared so I took advantage of iRacing’s release of the Ferrari 488 GTE and the CXC Simulations Motion Pro II to get some more seat time before I head back to the race this weekend. This is as close to testing at Le Mans as you can get.”

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

Photo: Scuderia Corsa
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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.”