Le Mans: News, notes and how to watch pre-race round-up

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The beauty of 24 Hours of Le Mans week is that there’s a lot of news… and the occasional frustration of Le Mans week is that there’s a lot of news.

QUALIFYING TIMES, STARTING GRID

But with a week of on-track preparation in the bag, and all the pre-race events out of the way, it’s time to analyze where we are and round-up the key items from the time in France:

  • The LMP1 battle: Fuel. Economy. It’s the two words we’ll hear a bit and know for certain after the first two stints – so watch carefully to see how Audi, Toyota and Porsche get on in terms of lap count. Project it out, and that’s how you’ll be able to sort out the pit stop number the remaining 22 hours or so.
  • Mark Webber’s return: The highest profile new addition to the FIA World Endurance Championship, and Le Mans by default, makes his first start here in 15 years aboard the No. 20 Porsche 919 Hybrid he’ll share with Timo Bernhard and Brendon Hartley. I’m sure I’m not the first to write that here’s to landing and ending on all four wheels this time around, after his 1999 aerial excursion for Mercedes.
  • Slow zones: New for 2014 are the introduction of designated “slow zones,” where certain portions of the track are temporarily speed-restricted to 60 km/hr. There’s been some concern in the paddock about speed disparities as cars close up, and whether all drivers will note when the “slow zone” caution lights appear on the dash. Another case of “stay tuned while this gets sorted out early, and we’ll figure it out how it affects the race later.”
  • ‘Merica, on the team front: From the U.S. perspective, Corvette Racing and Dempsey Racing-Proton are the likely contenders in GTE-Pro and GTE-Am for hopeful podium finishes. One for Corvette would tie a nice wrap around its 15th anniversary at Le Mans and be the first for the new C7.R; one for Dempsey would be the first for Patrick Dempsey.
  • ‘Merica, on the driving front: There’s 18 U.S. drivers in this year’s race, although only a handful that are that well-known in the States. Brothers Jordan and Ricky Taylor, Greaves’ Chris Dyson and 16-year-old Matt McMurry and the all-American Dempsey lineup of Dempsey, Joe Foster and Patrick Long have some cache though.
  • GTE scrap: Only four manufacturers are entered but it’s hard to separate much of Ferrari, Corvette and Aston Martin, and oddly its defending double class champion Porsche that enters the race on the back foot with their Porsche 911 RSR and older Porsche 911 GT3 RSR models, respectively. LMP1 may be the show, but GTE-Pro and Am are not going to be lacking for action, either.
  • LMP2’s showdown: Chances are a Nissan engine’s going to win, as it powers 13 of the 17 cars entered. But the chassis showdown between the venerable Oreca 03, Zytek Z11SN and Morgan cars against the debuting Ligier JS P2 –which thus far has shown impressive pace – is the thing to watch.
  • “Stig green”: Krohn Racing is a cool and popular underdog team to watch this year; Tracy Krohn’s team having been able to make it on a tight schedule. Former “Top Gear” “Stig” Ben Collins is a late and valuable add to the driver lineup. “It reminds me of two days as a green stig, when we did the environmentally friendly, very badly executed car we made on Top Gear. It’s really useful on the track because the thing stands out by a mile,” Collins told MotorSportsTalk.
  • Pre-race war of attrition: Name a car at random and there’s a good chance it’s been involved in an incident this week. Most have been in GTE, but there’s been a number of LMP1 and LMP2 cars involved too. I’m guessing we haven’t heard the last of this theme song thus far, but I’m really hoping the frequency of carnage subsides.
  • Prayers for safety: From talking to some of those here last year (and I can’t say I was one of them), there’s the sense that the race carried on after Allan Simonsen’s fatal accident just because it had to. No one wants an encore and frankly, we’ve had too many scary accidents in practice this week – none of them on replay (Loic Duval’s, James Calado’s and Fernando Rees’ all at Porsche Curves) – that puts a freaky sense out there heading into Saturday’s race. Even if you’re not religious, pray for a safe, clean 24 hours where all 162 drivers, crews and fans come home in one piece.
  • How to watch: Saturday, June 14 – 8:30 AM to 4:00 PM (FOX Sports 1, LIVE),  4:00 PM to 5:00 PM (FOX Sports 2, LIVE),  6:30 PM to 1:00 AM (FOX Sports 2, LIVE), 1:00 AM to 7:30 AM (FOX Sports 1, LIVE), 7:30 AM to 9:30 AM (FOX Sports 2, LIVE); with the entire race streamed LIVE on FOX Sports GO. All times are ET.

Coyne transitioning from underdog to Indy 500 threat

Photo: IndyCar
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For most of the team’s existence, Dale Coyne Racing has been the Chicago Cubs of American Open Wheel Racing – a team whose history was more defined by failures, at times comically so, than success.

The last decade, however, has seen the tide completely change. In 2007, they scored three podium finishes with Bruno Junqueira. In 2009, they won at Watkins Glen with the late Justin Wilson.

The combination won again at Texas Motor Speedway in 2012, and finished sixth in the 2013 Verizon IndyCar Series championship. That same year, Mike Conway took a shock win for them in Race 1 at the Chevrolet Dual in Detroit.

Carlos Huertas scored an upset win for them in Race 1 at the Houston double-header in 2014, and while 2015 and 2016 yielded no wins, Tristan Vautier and Conor Daly gave them several strong runs – Vautier’s best finish was fourth in Race 2 at Detroit, while Daly finished second in Race 1 at Detroit, finished fourth at Watkins Glen, and scored a trio of sixth-place finishes at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Road Course, Race 2 at Detroit, and the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course.

And 2017 was set to possibly be the best year the team has ever had. Sebastien Bourdais gave the team a popular win in the season-opening Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg, and then rookie Ed Jones scored back-to-back top tens – 10th and sixth – at St. Pete and the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach to start his career.

But, things started unraveling at the Indianapolis 500. Bourdais appeared set to be in the Fast Nine Pole Shootout during his first qualifying run – both of his first two laps were above 231 mph –  before his horrifying crash in Turn 2.

While Jones qualified an impressive 11th and finished an even more impressive third, results for the rest of the season became hard to come by – Jones only scored two more Top 10s, with a best result of seventh at Road America.

But, retooled for 2018, the Coyne team is a legitimate threat at the 102nd Running of the Indianapolis 500.

Bourdais, whose No. 18 Honda features new sponsorship from SealMaster and now ownership partners in Jimmy Vasser and James “Sulli” Sullivan, has a win already, again at St. Pete, and sits third in the championship.

And Bourdais may also be Honda’s best hope, given that he was the fastest Honda in qualifying – he’ll start fifth behind Ed Carpenter, Simon Pagenaud, Will Power, and Josef Newgarden.

“I think it speaks volumes about their work, their passion and their dedication to this program, Dale (Coyne), Jimmy (Vasser) and Sulli (James Sullivan) and everybody from top to bottom. I can’t thank them enough for the opportunity, for the support,” Bourdais said of the team’s effort.

Rookie Zachary Claman De Melo has been progressing nicely, and his Month of May has been very solid – he finished 12th at the INDYCAR Grand Prix on the IMS Road Course and qualified a strong 13th for the “500.”

“It’s been surreal to be here as rookie. I’m a bit at a loss for words,” Claman De Melo revealed after qualifying. “The fans, driving around this place, being with the team, everything is amazing. I have a great engineer, a great group of experienced mechanics at Dale Coyne Racing.”

While Conor Daly and Pippa Mann struggled in one-off entries, with Mann getting bumped out of the field in Saturday qualifying, Daly’s entry essentially puts three Coyne cars in the race – Daly’s No. 17 United States Air Force Honda is a Dale Coyne car that has been leased to Thom Burns Racing.

Rest assured, the days of Coyne being an “also ran” are long gone, and a Coyne car ending up in Victory Lane at the biggest race of the year would complete the Chicago Cubs analogy – the Cubs won a World Series title in 2016, and an Indy 500 triumph would be the crowning achievement in Coyne’s career.

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