Le Mans: 2014 race and week observations

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Another year, and another 24 Hours of Le Mans is in the books. Here’s a number of brief thoughts and observations after the week that was, with the race now completed to add to my thoughts heading into the race.

  • Audi rolls over the media, again: In 2010, Audi was viewed as the underdog with a heavily revised version of the R15+ chassis, and Peugeot had three bullets that were expected to dominate … and then did before blowing their engines all within a two or three-hour period. Audi ended 1-2-3. In 2014, Toyota was viewed as having its best chance to win, and then did dominate with the No. 7 car before an electrical failure around 5 a.m. tossed them out. Porsche put up a good fight for its first effort, but this was a race where Audi once again proved they are the kings of Le Mans until otherwise dethroned.
  • Cleaner, safer race than expected: The worry I had going in was that the carnage that peppered practice and qualifying was going to do likewise on race day. There were still a number of incidents, and the brief rain deluge in the second hour proved chaotic, but overall, it was not a day where we had to worry about heavy accidents. The retirement rate was rather low, and primarily as a result of mechanical issues rather then accidents.
  • Poignant GTE-Am win: You can’t publicly root for any particular entry as a reporter, but, it was hard not to root for the No. 95 Young Driver AMR all-Danish entry for Aston Martin Racing in the GTE-Am class, a year after Allan Simonsen’s fatal accident. For Nicki Thiim, David Heinemeier Hansson and Kristian Poulsen, it was a flawless drive interrupted only by a couple brief scares in the final hour. I briefly stopped by the Aston Martin garage post-race, where joy was the overflowing emotion after last year’s heartbreak. And for DHH, from an actual racing standpoint, it was a brilliant recovery after a second place in LMP2 last year – the Danish programming ace has quickly developed into one of the world’s top, fastest and cleanest gentlemen drivers.
  • Heavy variety in LMP1, GTE-Pro; not as much in LMP2, GTE-Am: Relative to the number of cars entered in each class (9 LMP1, 17 LMP2, 1 experimental, 9 GTE-Pro, 18 GTE-Am), the two all-pro classes featured the best amount of variety. Audi, Porsche and Toyota all led in LMP1 and with mechanical issues affecting most of those seven cars, Rebellion Racing was there to capitalize with a surprise, yet impressive, fourth place overall finish in the LMP1-L Rebellion R-One Toyota. In GTE-Pro, all four manufacturers entered (Ferrari, Porsche, Aston Martin and Corvette) and the BoP was much closer than a year ago. It made for a thrilling race throughout that as my colleague Luke Smith mentioned yesterday, featured a margin of victory wide of the mark of how close it actually was. But with really only three or four cars pacing LMP2 and GTE-Am, there wasn’t much in terms of diversity there. Maybe that made it easier to follow?
  • America’s day: Corvette Racing flew the flag for the U.S. with a runner-up finish in GTE-Pro, with the No. 73 car driven by Jan Magnussen, Antonio Garcia and Jordan Taylor. A valve stem breakage on a pit stop cost them nearly two laps, ultimately the margin of victory to the class-winning No. 51 AF Corse Ferrari F458 Italia.
  • Big crowd: The ACO announced a crowd of 263,300 spectators for the race – and you could tell how many were on the grounds in trips into and out of the 8.4-mile circuit. There’s nothing else in the world like Le Mans.

Lessons learned in three rounds of Extreme E pay huge dividends in the Copper X Prix for Tanner Foust

Foust Copper X Prix
McLaren Racing
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To paraphrase the Grateful Dead, what a long, unique trip it’s been for Tanner Foust in his first season with the Extreme E series as he took his early season lessons to Chile to compete in the Copper X Prix. And he’s learned his lessons well.

In February, McLaren announced they would expand their motorsports program with an Extreme E entry. They signed two talented rally drivers in Foust and Emma Gilmour – and paired them for the opening round in Neom, Saudi Arabia with just a few days of testing under their belts. Baked by the Arabian desert sun, it was trial by fire.

The duo performed well in their debut, advancing into the final round and finishing fifth. As Extreme E headed to another desert halfway across the globe for Round 4, it was a good time to catch up with Foust and ask about McLaren’s progress. The Copper X Prix was held this past weekend in one of the most extreme regions in the world: the Atacama Desert.

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“The shock going into the first race was the speed,” Foust told NBC Sports. “It was much higher than we had tested. We spent a lot of time around 100 miles per hour [in race trim] and our testing speeds were more in the 60 to 70-mile range. Then, once we sort of got around that, the car got updated so you can drive it even faster.”

In rally racing, some incidents are out of a driver’s control. Even peeking around another car can be dangerous because of potholes that have recently been gouged in the ground or large bushes that seem to sprout up between laps. A couple of rollovers brought Foust back to earth – but the pace was there and that was important.

“We had some challenges this season,” Foust said prior to the Copper X Prix. “We had a good start; made the final, which is a difficult thing to do in this series. I had two rolls in the first three events, but I have improved each time. Now we come into Round 4 in Chile in a pretty strong position. We have competitive times as a team. We are communicating really well and have our heads around this Odyssey vehicle.”

Foust’s words proved to be prophetic.

He won the Crazy Race – Extreme E’s version of a Last Chance Qualifier – and did so after passing the field. It was the same manner in which he qualified for Saudi Arabia’s finale, but this time things would be better. There were those hard-earned lessons on which to lean – and Foust had reps under his belt. He was not going to be caught off guard by any random obstacles.

Tanner Foust passed Sebastien Loeb heading to the Switch Zone in the Copper X Prix. (Photo by Sam Bagnall / LAT Images)

In the Copper X Prix finale, he pressured one of the best rally drivers in the history of the sport.

Pitching sideways through a tight left-hander late in his stint, Foust put his McLaren Extreme E Odyssey at the head of the pack in front of Sebastien Loeb as they headed to the Switch Zone. There, he would turn the car over to his co-driver Gilmour.

The Extreme E series pairs male and female drivers with both taking a turn behind the wheel.

After the driver change, Gilmour lost the lead momentarily to Loeb’s teammate Cristina Gutierrez, but as they charged toward the finish line, she surged ahead and crossed under the checkers first.

“What an improvement for the team over this year,” Foust said after the race. “We have struggled through some of the events, being in our first year in competition. We showed true pace this weekend; overtaking Sebastien Loeb was a highlight.

“Emma put in a great run in the Final. I was fortunate to go from last to first in the Crazy Race and then first in the Final but with some flag penalties, we had 20 seconds added to our time, which put us into fifth. It was a great feeling crossing the line first, I love this wide style track and the NEOM McLaren Odyssey was fantastic here.

“Hopefully we can continue that momentum into Uruguay.”

Loeb and Gutierrez were elevated to the top of the podium, but no one can take away the feeling of crossing under the checkers first.


Racing Responsibly

Since cars were first invented, racing has played a socially responsible role by improving safety. As Earth reaches a tipping point with climate change, racing needs to adapt to these new needs and requirements, which is where Extreme E’s unique strategy becomes increasingly important.

The Extreme E experience is more than simple racing. Each race is accompanied by a legacy program designed to offset damage done by climate change and to erase the footprint caused by the events.

Foust, a biology major from the University of Colorado, was given the chance to rekindle his interest and give back to the environment ahead of the Copper X Prix.

The Atacama is the oldest desert in the world at 150 million years. It is the driest place on earth and has the highest degree of ultraviolet light. And yet somehow life perseveres through underground rivers with oases dating back to Incan times. Foust participated in preparing a local habitat for the reintroduction of a critically endangered water frog to Chile’s longest river, the Loa, which snakes its way through the desert.

“I’m loving the experience,” Foust said. “I’m putting on a lot of Chapstick, a lot of sunscreen. What a fascinating part of the world. I never would have come here otherwise.

“I honestly am very honored to be a part of this sport. I am a huge believer in the fact that motorsports has done us good in the last 100 years. I think we benefit every single time we put our seatbelts on and drive down the road to the lessons learned in racing since the turn of the century. And I really hope motorsports continues that tradition.

“I think that motorsports like [Extreme E] does it in a responsible way, a gender-neutral way and a carbon-neutral way.”