Le Mans: LMP2 stunners and spoilers

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We’re taking a look through the field ahead of this year’s 24 Hours of Le Mans at the manufacturers and teams entered. Next up is LMP2 (pictured right is the Signatech Alpine entry shading the No. 2 Toyota).

ENTRY LIST

LMP2: The class of the future might need to enjoy the present while it still can. As the four chassis constructors for 2017 will be selected, 2015 might mark one of the last years with so much diversity in the cost-capped class. Nissan still powers 14 of the 19 cars, but with Ligier/Morgan (Onroak), BR, Alpine, ORECA, Gibson and Dome all represented in the class, there’s still plenty of chassis variety.

  • G-Drive Racing: The No. 26 car won at Silverstone and the No. 28 car has come second in both races thus far; it would be a surprise if either or both of these Ligier JS P2 Nissans aren’t in podium contention come sunrise.
  • SMP Racing: In only the second race for the BR01 chassis, experience and laps are the goal for this team. Some good drivers are split in the team’s two cars, notably ex-IndyCar driver Mikhail Aleshin who makes his Le Mans debut in the No. 37 car.
  • Pegasus Racing: The IndyCar or F1 comparison team here would be Dale Coyne Racing or Minardi. Pegasus presses on with a minimal budget, a less than dominant driver lineup and an aging package, but will look to finish.
  • Tequila Patron ESM: What an odyssey it’s been for Scott Sharp’s team the last six months. From the challenging HPD ARX-04b to the older, venerable HPD ARX-03b and now to a pair of Ligier JS P2 Hondas, Sharp’s one constant in 2015 has been chassis changes. The cars are better, they look awesome in Rolling Stone livery, and the lineups are good, but the class is so deep that for a first-year Le Mans program, a win would be a stretch to predict.
  • OAK Racing: OAK remains the flagship team name for Jacques Nicolet’s operation, even though G-Drive represents Nicolet and Onroak’s best shot at a class win. Still, while Nicolet himself and his pair of gentlemen co-drivers won’t be threatening the class podium, it’s the team’s No. 34 Ligier JS P2 Honda of Le Mans rookies Kevin Estre, Laurens Vanthoor and Chris Cumming that is a top sleeper in class. They’re all quick – particularly Cumming, as the required Silver driver – and if reliability holds up they’re one to watch.
  • Signatech Alpine: Nelson Panciatici, Paul-Loup Chatin and Vincent Capillaire in a French-entered, Alpine chassis is about as good of a local bet in class as you can get. The trio’s damn good and underrated; a definite win contender.
  • Jota Sport: The defending class winners will again factor into the outcome in the updated Gibson 015S chassis, and enter fresh off a class win as a wild card entry in Spa. The team is one of the best in Europe.
  • Krohn Racing: Tracy Krohn has been a Le Mans and sports car stalwart for the longest time, but it remains to be seen whether his LMP2 entry can figure into the equation. Nic Jonsson and Joao Barbosa round out a solid lineup in the class’ lone Ligier JS P2 Judd.
  • Greaves Motorsport: The ELMS winners at Silverstone have a respectable lineup and another Nissan GT Academy winner in a seat, in the form of late addition Gaetan Paletou. Like the Dyson/McMurry/TKS entry last year, this car should be shooting for a finish, with anything more a bonus.
  • Strakka Racing: A former Le Mans class-winning team, the lone Dome in the field may find the sledding a bit tougher this year. Still a solid team and the same driver lineup of Kane, Watts and Leventis make a welcome return after a year’s hiatus.
  • Team SARDMorand: The team’s finances, more than its performance, have dominated headlines around this group this year. Pace was impressive at Spa and another decent driver lineup, but hard to project more than a top-five at best.
  • Ibanez Racing: Like the all-gentlemen OAK entry and Pegasus car, it’s hard to see this entry figuring much into the equation in the older ORECA 03R Nissan.
  • Thiriet by TDS Racing: Came second here a year ago in the debut of the Ligier JS P2 Nissan; now armed with another new car in the ORECA 05 Nissan and the same driver lineup, they’ll try to go one better.
  • KCMG: A sneaky win contender if the reliability is there on the new ORECA 05 Nissan. Howson and Bradley have tasted WEC class wins before and Nicolas Lapierre is an excellent choice as the third driver.
  • Murphy Prototypes: Older car, decent but not spectacular driver lineup, and it’s hard to see “Murphy’s Men” doing much more than a top-five at best.

Mario Andretti says Colton Herta could be next American star in F1

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Mario Andretti’s last Formula One victory is also the last by an American driver in more than 42 years on the international open-wheel road racing series.

If you had told Andretti that while he was celebrating on the Grand Prix of the Netherlands podium on Aug. 27, 1978 at the Vandzoort circuit, he wouldn’t have believed it.

“Absolutely not,” Andretti told Kyle Petty during the most recent “Coffee With Kyle” episode (video above). “It’s a shame. Somehow we have so much talent here, and either there’s no invitation or something there. But I think it’s time to give some of this young talent that, in my opinion, is absolutely capable.”

The Dutch GP was the last of Andretti’s 12 victories in F1 and came during his championship season. No one since has come close to matching his success in F1.

Mario Andretti drives his Lotus-Ford to victory in the 1978 Grand Prix of the Netherlands (Bernard Cahier/Getty Images).

Andretti’s son, Michael, took a full-time ride with McLaren in 1993 but left with three races remaining in a season marred by crashes and mechanical problems.

Scott Speed was the last American to run a full F1 season in 2006, and Alexander Rossi made the most recent F1 start by a U.S. driver in 2015. Rossi has said he has no desire to return to racing in Europe after winning the 2016 Indianapolis 500 and becoming an IndyCar championship contender.

But Mario Andretti believes Andretti Autosport has another rising star with F1-caliber ability.

“Colton Herta is one that comes to mind,” Mario Andretti said. “As a young lad, his dad sent him to Europe, he was doing Formula 3, and he knows most of the circuits there. He’s trained. He’s showed in his rookie season and won some premium races at COTA (and Laguna Seca), beat two of the very best Indy has to offer (in) Will Power and Scott Dixon.

“This is one kid I’d love to see him get a break over there to fly the U.S. colors again.”

Herta, 20, seems interested in exploring an F1 leap over the next few years. After winning Sept. 13 at Mid-Ohio from the pole position (his third career victory in the NTT IndyCar Series), the No. 88 Dallara-Honda driver is ranked fourth in the standings in his sophomore year and regarded as one of the series’ top prospects.

Herta recently told RACER.com “I’d love to give Formula 1 a crack” but said he also would be happy driving in IndyCar and IMSA.

A naturalized U.S. citizen who told Petty about spending several years with his family in an Italian refugee camp before coming to America, Mario Andretti said F1 brought an enormous sense of patriotic pride.

“Formula One is like the Olympics in a sense,” he said. “You’re in a different country, a different continent. When you earn that highest step of the podium, they play your national anthem. That’s when you take nothing for granted. You feel like I’m representing my country, and the proudest moments are those.

“I’d just like to see some other American drivers experience that. It’s time.”

Mario Andretti with four-time NASCAR champion Jeff Gordon and six-time Formula One champion Lewis Hamilton before the Nov. 22, 2015 season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway (Jared C. Tilton/NASCAR via Getty Images).

During the “Coffee With Kyle” conversation, Andretti also discussed:

–His versatility as a winner in IndyCar, sports cars, NASCAR and Formula One;

–His 1967 Daytona 500 victory and how he enjoyed racing with crew chief Jake Elder at the famed Holman-Moody team;

Mario Andretti Colton Herta
Mario Andretti and Kyle Petty saluted “The King” by wearing their Richard Petty-style hats during the latest “Coffee With Kyle” (NBCSN).

–Why he delayed his entry to F1 for a few years because of his earnings power in IndyCar. “I always say I’d race for free, but at the same time, you’re thinking of family and the future,” he said. “It was in the back of your mind that you can’t give up the earning power of IndyCar. That kept me from going full time in Formula One, but I always said that sometime in my career, I’d have to devote a period to Formula One.”

–On what it was like racing in an era when driver deaths were more prevalent. “If you’re going to do this, you’re not going to dwell on those negatives,” Andretti said. “There’s no way. You knew it was present. Especially in the ‘60s at the beginning of the season at the drivers meetings, you couldn’t help but look around and say, ‘I wonder who is not going to be here at the end of the season.’ We’d lose four to five guys. In ’64, we lost six guys.

“It’s something if you dwell on that, you’re going to take on a different profession. It’s a desire and love to want to drive that overcame all that and then the confidence it’s not going to happen to me. And then you pray.”

Watch the full “Coffee With Kyle” episode in the video above or by clicking here.

Mario Andretti looks on before the 103rd Indianapolis 500 on May 26, 2019 (Chris Graythen/Getty Images).