Le Mans: GTE Key News and Notes

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As the battle between the production titans raged on at the front of the field throughout the 24 Hours of Le Mans, the race to win the GTE Pro and GTE Am classes was also very hotly contested.

Ultimately, the win in GTE Pro went to Ferrari’s AF Corse team with the No. 51 car, piloted by Gianmaria Bruni, Giancarlo Fisichella and Toni Vilander. However, the two lap margin of victory was rather generous following a supreme fight through the night between the No. 51, the No. 97 Aston Martin Racing car, and the No. 74 Chevrolet Corvette, with just three seconds separating the top three at points.

The AF Corse team managed to stay out of trouble, though, and led home the No. 73 Chevrolet Corvette of Jan Magnussen, Antonio Garcia and Jordan Taylor. Last year’s class winner, the No. 92 Porsche Team Manthey car, completed the GTE Pro podium. Ferrari F1 driver and this year’s race starter Fernando Alonso took to Twitter to send his congratulations to the AF Corse drivers.

For Aston Martin, it was another difficult race at the Circuit de la Sarthe. The No. 97 was in the mix to claim class victory after Bruno Senna put in a superb overnight stint to lead ahead of Vilander and Tom Milner in the No. 74, with the latter eventually being classified in fourth place in class. Eventually, Aston Martin came unstuck again due to a loose steering pipe. Senna made his frustration clear on Twitter, but vowed to return in 2015 for a third shot at endurance glory.

In the GTE Am class, it was an emotional victory for the No. 95 Aston Martin Racing car. The all-Danish troupe of Kristian Poulsen, David Heinemeier-Hansson and Nicki Thiim dominated proceedings to win just a year after their teammate, Allan Simonsen, died on lap two of the race. A late technical scare on the car threatened to hand the win to Porsche, but the team soon fixed the issue and brought the car home.

Patrick Dempsey’s third attempt at Le Mans did not go entirely to plan. The Grey’s Anatomy star put in a solid performance behind the wheel, but after setting his sights on a podium finish in the GTE Am class, fifth place will have come as a bitter disappointment for his No. 77 Porsche team and co-pilots Joe Foster and Patrick Long.

On the same weekend as the World Cup began, a former winner was trying his hand in the most famous motor race. Fabien Barthez played an instrumental part in France’s victory at the 1998 tournament, playing in goal, but was forced to settle for ninth place on his debut at Le Mans in the No. 58 Team Sofrev car alongside Anthony Pons and Soheil Ayari.

An honorable mention has to go to the No. 79 Prospeed Competition car, which was fored to switch to GTE Pro at the last minute due to the withdrawal of its bronze-rated driver. Despite only having two drivers, the car ran well to finish fifth in class with Jeroen Bleekemolen and Cooper MacNeil sharing duties behind the wheel.

Backing up its class victory in GTE Pro, AF Corse secured a podium finish in GTE Am with the No. 61 car finishing third behind the No. 88 Proton Competition Porsche.

However, the early leader in the GTE Am class for AF Corse, the No. 81 car of Sam Bird, Stephen Wyatt and Michele Rugolo, got caught up in the incident between the No. 3 Audi and the No. 8 Toyota during the first rain shower on Saturday afternoon.

Just as it was a classic race at the front of the field in the LMP1 class, the GTEs certainly put on a show. The three GTE Pro cars dancing in the dark down the Mulsanne straight will remain as one of the greatest sights from this year’s race, and for the Danes in the No. 95 Aston Martin, this might just be the sweetest victory of all.

The FIA World Endurance Championship now begins its summer break, with the next round taking place at the Circuit of the Americas in Austin on the 20th September.

Alexander Rossi hopes to dodge oncoming traffic in second Baja 1000

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One of the great viral videos of last year’s offseason was the sight of Alexander Rossi’s Honda Ridgeline off-road vehicle and its near head-on collision with a passenger SUV coming in the wrong direction of last year’s Baja 1000.

The video of the incident overshadowed an outstanding debut for Rossi in the SCORE OFF Road Desert race.

Rossi (pictured above on the right along with fellow driver Jeff Proctor) told NBCSports.com that driving down the same roads still used by passenger traffic is one of the unique challenges of the Baja 1000.

“The most demanding form of racing is IndyCar racing,” Rossi told NBC Sports.com. “But the big thing for me in the Baja 1000 is mentally being able to understand the terrain that is coming at you at 120 miles an hour in the dust and pedestrians and other cars, people and cattle that come along with this race.”

Rossi is becoming a modern-day Parnelli Jones, A.J. Foyt and Mario Andretti. He wants to race anything on wheels and win.

Since the 2019 NTT IndyCar Series season concluded with the Sept. 22 Firestone Grand Prix of Monterey, Rossi competed in the Bathurst 1000 in Australia on Oct. 13. Earlier this year, Rossi drove for Acura Team Penske in the Rolex 24 at Daytona and the Mobil 1 12 Hours of Sebring.

This weekend, the winner of the 100th Indianapolis 500 in 2016 and a perennial contender for the NTT IndyCar Series championship will compete in the Baja 1000 for the second straight year.

Rossi will be driving for the Honda Ridgeline Racing team and is the sixth Indy 500 winner to compete in the Baja 1000.

Other Indy 500 winners who have raced in the SCORE Baja 1000 include Jones, the 1963 Indianapolis winner and a two-time Baja 1000 race winner (1971 72); fellow Honda IndyCar Series driver and Andretti Autosport teammate Ryan Hunter-Reay, the Indy winner in 2014; Rick Mears, who won the Indianapolis 500 four times, 1985 Indy 500 champion Danny Sullivan and 2004 Indy winner Buddy Rice.

NTT IndyCar season champions who have raced in the Baja 1000 include Mears, Hunter-Reay, Sebastien Bourdais, Jimmy Vasser and Paul Tracy.

Rossi has a better understanding of what to expect in this year’s Baja 1000 after last year’s rookie experience.

How valuable was last years’ experience?

“It’s hugely valuable,” Rossi said. “The course changes each year. There will be some elements that are the same, but it’s a new route from start to finish this year. That is why we go down a week early. We do pre-running in a similar type of vehicle and take course notes and analyze each individual section of the course, find the danger areas and what you need to do come race day.

“Ultimately, the biggest thing is having the knowledge of how to prepare for the race and what to expect once you roll off the starting line. That is something I will have going for me this year that I didn’t have last year.”

As an off-road rookie, Rossi acclimated to the demands of desert racing as the Jeff Proctor-led Honda Off-Road Racing Team finished second in Class 7. It was the fourth consecutive time the team finished first or second in the Ridgeline Baja Race Truck at the Baja 1000.

“I don’t know that I can pinpoint any highlights other than just the whole experience,” Rossi said of last years’ experience. “The whole week and a half I had down there in 2018 was phenomenal. The team made me feel part of the family from Day One. I just love driving a desert truck through Baja California. It’s an experience unlike any other.

“The entire event was a highlight more than one specific moment.”

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Driving an off-road Honda Ridgeline through the desert of Baja California in Mexico is vastly different than Rossi’s regular ride in the No. 27 NAPA Honda in the NTT IndyCar Series. But Rossi believes there are many similarities, also.

“It’s very different, for obvious reasons, but ultimately, a race car is a race car,” Rossi said. “It has four wheels, and you are trying to get it from Point A to Point B quicker than other people. The general underlying techniques of getting a car through the corner efficiently is all the same; it’s just a different style.

“Everyone here is very talented at what they do and very good so in order to win this race, you have to be at the top of your game.”

The Baja 1000, like most forms of off-road racing, is more against the clock than a wheel-to-wheel competition such as IndyCar. Rossi believes it is a different form of endurance racing, similar to IMSA in many ways.

“You have to compare it like an endurance race,” Rossi said. “It’s a race where the first part of it, you are trying to get through and not take chances and stay in touch with the people you are trying to stay in touch with.

“When you get down to the final 20 to 30 percent, that is when you try to either close the lead of extend the lead of whatever position you are in. That is similar to the Rolex 24 at Daytona. It comes down to the last three or four hours, and we take a mentality closer to that.

“The only difference is if you get it wrong at Daytona, you spin in the grass. Here, it can be more dramatic than that.”

As an off-road rookie in 2018, Rossi acclimated to the demands of desert racing as the Jeff Proctor-led Honda Off-Road Racing Team finished second in Class 7. It was the fourth consecutive time the team finished first or second in the Ridgeline Baja Race Truck at the Baja 1000.

“The Honda off-road guys and my co-driver/navigator Evan Weller make it so easy for me to just jump right in and go to work,” Rossi said. “I can’t wait to share the seat with Jeff [Proctor] and Pat [Dailey] once again, and hopefully, bring home a win.”

The Honda Off-Road Racing Team has had an outstanding 2019 season, including class wins for the Baja Ridgeline Race Truck at the Parker 425, the Mint 400 and the Baja 500; where the team successfully debuted the second-generation “TSCO” chassis; and a second-place Class 7 finish at the Vegas-to-Reno event.

Proctor won his class in the Baja 1000 in both 2015 and 2016 with the Ridgeline, finished second in class in 2017 and 2018; and won the companion SCORE Baja 500 race both in 2016, 2018 and again earlier this year. The Ridgeline competes in Class 7, for unlimited six-cylinder production-appearing trucks and SUVs.

“We are stoked to have Alexander back racing with us in Mexico for his sophomore attempt at this iconic off-road race,” Proctor said. “This year’s 52nd annual Baja 1000 course covers ALL of the toughest terrain and areas in Baja Norte….as always, it will be tough.

“Alex is one of the brightest motorsports minds I’ve worked with, and he is a great asset to our team.”

The Baja 1000 begins Friday and runs through the weekend along the Baja Peninsula of Mexico.

Follow Bruce Martin on Twitter at @BruceMartin_500