Le Mans: Aston Martin, AF Corse win in GTE; Jota Sport in LMP2

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One year ago at Le Mans, Aston Martin Racing endured through a dark day with the tragic death of Danish driver Allan Simonsen (pictured, last year prior to his fatal early crash at Tertre Rouge).

But today, their No. 95 team – the team that Simonsen competed for in last year’s 24 Hours – earned top honors in GTE-Am with the all-Danish driver lineup of Kristian Poulsen, David Heinemeier Hansson, and Nicki Thiim.

Poulsen brought the No. 95 to the checkered flag with a two-lap advantage over the No. 88 Proton Competition Porsche 911 RSR. The No. 61 AF Corse Ferrari was third.

It marks the second Le Mans win for Poulsen, who picked up an LMP2 victory in the 2009 race while driving the Team Essex Porsche RS Spyder. As for Thiim and DHH, it’s their first Le Mans win.

In the GTE-Pro class, AF Corse chalked up the win with Gianmaria Bruni, Toni Vilander, and Giancarlo Fisichella in their No. 51 Ferrari 458 Italia.

For a time, AF Corse’s fight with the Aston Martin and Corvette Racing camps in GTE-Pro was the highlight of the entire race itself. But they were able to outlast them both, with the No. 73 Corvette finishing second at one lap behind. The No. 92 Porsche Team Manthey 911 RSR completes the Pro podium, two laps down.

And in LMP2, the No. 38 Jota Sport Zytek-Nissan held on by a slim margin after getting a final splash of fuel in the last half-hour of the race.

When Marc Gene was called in to drive for Audi after Loic Duval’s vicious crash, Oliver Turvey stepped in to help the No. 38 team and co-drivers Harry Tincknell and Simon Dolan. It was Turvey that wound up closing out the race for the No. 38.

Chasing them to the bitter end was the No. 46 Thiriet by TDS Racing Ligier, which survived an instance of suspension damage with four hours remaining. Third place went to the No. 36 Signatech Alpine/Nissan.

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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