Le Mans: Rolling blog for the 2015 24 Hours

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LE MANS, France – Hello from Circuit de la Sarthe, where either I or my MotorSportsTalk colleague Luke Smith will be filing updates as it goes throughout the 83rd running of the 24 Hours of Le Mans.

1:00 p.m. CET: Drama in GTE-Pro. What was shaping up as a classic fight between the No. 51 AF Corse Ferrari F458 Italia and No. 64 Corvette C7.R may have lost one of its contenders. Toni Vilander pitted the Ferrari with just under two hours to go with some apparent rear end damage, after exiting Mulsanne corner. The car is in the garage and it will lose several laps.

11:00 a.m. CET: Just a quick bit now: The track has been declared wet. So with four hours to go, anything can happen.

Porsche runs 1-2. KCMG, Corvette and Aston Martin are the other class leaders.

07:45 a.m CET: The fourth safety car of the race is out for an accident at the exit of the Porsche Curves, involving Roald Goethe in the No. 96 Aston Martin Vantage V8.

Goethe was ceding the road to allow a faster prototype through, but ran wide and then into an unprotected concrete barrier.

About 25 minutes after the accident, Aston Martin tweeted this out on Goethe’s status, confirming he is conscious but going to the medical center:

07:00 a.m CET: Now with 16 hours in the books, things had been fairly uneventful over the night, until Marcel Fassler just had an issue.

Some damage has struck the rear assembly and engine cover of the No. 7 Audi R18 e-tron quattro, and the car has gone into the garage for repairs.

The other issue of note that has occurred overnight affected the then-GTE-Pro leading No. 99 Aston Martin Vantage V8, driven by Fernando Rees. Following a brake change, Rees contacted Tristan Gommendy’s No. 46 Thiriet by TDS Racing Oreca 05 Nissan going into the first chicane, which took Gommendy out of the race and sent Rees back into the garage for repairs.

More to follow soon after a coffee…

03:00 a.m CET: 12 hours down, 12 to go at Le Mans – and it is Porsche who remains in control following a sensational display from Nick Tandy in the no. 19 car as night has fallen.

At the halfway stage in the race, the Briton leads the field by over one minute following a string of quick stints in the 919 Hybrid, leaving the closely-knit Audi pair of Marco Bonanomi and Andre Lotterer in the no. 9 and no. 7 respectively scrambling to find time and cut the deficit at the front of the field.

KCMG’s advantage at the front of the LMP2 field took another hit in the 12th hour of racing as the team was forced to pit and replace one of the LED lights on the right-hand side of the car. Remarkably, the no. 47’s lead was such that it was able to take a three-minute stop and still emerge with a lead of almost a minute over the Thiriet car in second place, with G-Drive’s no. 26 bearing down on the French trio for second place.

The GTE Pro battle has boiled down to Corvette and Aston Martin, with the no. 64 and no. 99 cars trading top spot in class multiple times over the past few hours. At the time of writing, the advantage currently lies with Tommy Milner in the Corvette, but with the no. 51 AF Corse car also on the lead lap, the fight is still wide open.

GTE Am remains closely fought between Aston Martin Racing’s no. 98 and the SMP Racing no. 72, with Victor Shaytar recently taking the lead in the latter car after AMR’s 12th pit stop.

00:00 a.m. CET: As Saturday has turned into Sunday, the 2015 24 Hours of Le Mans has taken a big twist in the LMP1 and LMP2 classes after the leading cars were both hit with a stop/go penalty.

The stewards deemed the no. 17 Porsche of Mark Webber to have overtaken another car under yellow flags, prompting them to hand the leading car a one minute stop/go penalty and end the raging battle between the red Porsche and Audi’s no. 7 car at the front of the field.

Having been separated by just a few tenths of a second, both cars pitted on the same lap – Webber to serve his penalty, Marcel Fassler for a scheduled stop – before Porsche brought its car in again just one lap later for a full service. Timo Bernhard is now behind the wheel of the 919 Hybrid down in fourth place.

In LMP2, the KCMG no. 47 has seen its lead slashed after it fell foul to the same fate as Porsche, receiving a one minute stop/go penalty. Richard Bradley still leads the class, but the team’s advantage has fallen to just 1m20s at the front.

At the very head of the field, Nico Hulkenberg now leads the way for Porsche in the no. 19 car by six seconds ahead of Rene Rast in the no. 9 Audi.

11:00 p.m. CET: One of the Nissans, the retro-liveried No. 21 GT-R LM NISMO is behind the wall with the front of the car being looked at. The team had also indicated it was examining the clutch and rear suspension. The sister No. 22 car has had a sensor replaced under the hood.

Meanwhile, an accident for the No. 36 Signatech Alpine A450b Nissan at the end of the Mulsanne into Mulsanne corner, has taken that car out of contention, although not officially out of the race. Paul-Loup Chatin was driving, and that’s put the race under its third safety car period at the eight-hour mark.

The No. 41 Greaves Motorsport Gibson 015S Nissan is an official retirement (battery) and per Radio Le Mans, so to is the No. 50 Larbre Corvette, due to gearbox issues. The Larbre team had thrashed to repair the car for the start after a crash in morning warmup.

Rene Rast leads overall in the No. 9 Audi R18 e-tron quattro, with the top four cars in LMP1 (No. 9 Audi, Nos. 17 and 19 Porsches and No. 7 Audi) seeing their gaps neutralized by way of the safety car.

9:00 p.m. CET: At the six-hour mark, one of the top sleepers in LMP2 – the No. 34 Ligier JS P2 Honda driven by Kevin Estre, Laurens Vanthoor and Chris Cumming – is back in the pit lane after an off by Cumming on the run to Indianapolis. Cumming locked up the left rear on corner entry – it may have been driver error but it also looked as though something may have snapped – but the car went into the gravel and limped back to the pits.

A battery issue has affected the No. 41 Greaves Motorsport Gibson 015S Nissan, driven by Gary Hirsch, and the car stopped past the Dunlop chicane. The No. 30 Extreme Speed Motorsports Ligier JS P2 Honda returned to the track after losing 10 laps in the garage with an oil adjustment.

Perhaps the bigger issue in LMP was for LMP1 driver Anthony Davidson, one of the defending FIA World Endurance Championship champions, who admitted to a mistake in the No. 1 Toyota TS040 Hybrid when speaking to Radio Le Mans.

“I was pushing hard in the Porsche Curves and just got my timing wrong. I made a mistake,” Davidson told Radio Le Mans. “I tagged a Ferrari. Timed it wrong. Just trying to carry momentum. Damaged the right front bodywork. Made the balance too hard to drive.”

Tommy Milner exited his No. 64 Corvette C7.R after a stellar stint himself, albeit one that wasn’t entirely comfortable.

“Certainly there were moments having a lot of fun in the car,” Milner told Radio Le Mans. “When the car feels good, it’s nice for us drivers to push the limit. I wasn’t having too much fun. I had to go to the bathroom early and that was quite painful. But the battles on track made up for it.”

Appears as though Milner has made up for it post-his stint, courtesy of this pic posted by Corvette Racing teammate Ryan Briscoe:

The leader after six hours? A one Mark Webber, now having taken over from Brendon Hartley, then Timo Bernhard in the red No. 17 Porsche 919 Hybrid.

7:15 p.m. CET: We’ve got some great lead battles. It’s on like Donkey Kong between Brendon Hartley in the No. 17 Porsche 919 Hybrid and Filipe Albuquerque in the No. 9 Audi R18 e-tron quattro, the latter running laps as fast as the 3:18 and 3:17 ranges, which are new lap records.

Meanwhile there’s been a titanic four-car, three-manufacturer fight in GTE-Pro between Corvette, Aston Martin and Ferrari. Tommy Milner, Fernando Rees, Darren Turner and Davide Rigon have all been in the fray.

LMP2 and GTE-Am have been less eventful thus far, with the No. 47 KCMG Oreca 05 Nissan and No. 72 SMP Racing Ferrari F458 Italia, respectively, controlling the race up front.

6:00 p.m. CET: The No. 8 Audi R18 e-tron quattro is the second Audi with an issue in the third hour, this time as Loic Duval had contact with Giancarlo Fisichella in the No. 51 AF Corse Ferrari F458 Italia on the run to Indianapolis.

Duval went to the far inside on the right approaching a slow zone, trying to avoid three or four other cars that were slow in the slow zone, but carried too much speed into the portion of the track. The right front of Fisichella’s Ferrari collected the left rear of Duval’s Audi, which pitched the Audi back across the road and into the barrier.

Duval continued, sans nose assembly, made it back to the garage and pitted for a new nose assembly. The car returned to the track one lap down, with Lucas di Grassi now driving, after less than 10 minutes in the garage.

5:30 p.m. CET: A puncture for the No. 7 Audi R18 e-tron quattro, driven by Andre Lotterer, has cost the team about 40 seconds for an unplanned fourth stop of the race.

Lotterer had scythed his way up to the lead during the second hour, and was leading in this instance when he pitted unexpectedly.

The stop means the Nos. 17 and 18 Porsche 919 Hybrids are back to first and second overall.

4 p.m. CET: The first hour is in the books with Porsche leading, in the form of Timo Bernhard in the No. 17 Porsche 919 Hybrid, although the race is now under a safety car for a three-car incident involving the No. 92 Porsche 911 RSR, the No. 42 Strakka Racing Dome S103 Nissan and No. 13 Rebellion R-One AER.

The Dome appeared to contact the Porsche and also hit the Rebellion in the process. Patrick Pilet, in the Porsche, made it out of the first chicane at the Mulsanne but unfortunately his car was set ablaze. He ground to a halt, and exited the car under his own power.

Other class leaders at the one-hour mark included Tristan Gommendy (No. 46 Thiriet by TDS Racing Oreca 05 Nissan, LMP2), Nicki Thiim (No. 95 Aston Martin Vantage V8, GTE-Pro) and Andrea Bertolini (No. 72 SMP Racing Ferrari F458 Italia, GTE-Am).

2 p.m. CET:  The quick note before the race is that the field looks like it may drop by one. The No. 50 Larbre Competition Corvette C7.R, driven by Gianluca Roda, crashed in the morning warmup and was not on the pre-grid as of 2 p.m. local time, less than an hour before the race start at 3.

If that car fails to start, it will leave the field at 54 cars. The factory No. 63 Corvette C7.R was withdrawn after its accident on Thursday.

More to follow throughout the day.

A deep dive into the new GR Cup as Toyota branches into single-make sports car racing

Toyota GR Cup
Swikar Patel/Toyota Racing Development
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MOORESVILLE, N.C. – Inside this former textile mill, a retro building built in 1892 with massive floor-to-ceiling windows and sturdy brick, Toyota has planted a future seed with the GR Cup.

Once a hub for making cotton dye, the first floor has been turned into a factory that churned out spec sports cars for the past year as Toyota Racing Development prepares to launch its first single-make series.

The inaugural season of the Toyota Gazoo Racing GR Cup will begin this weekend at Sonoma Raceway, the first of seven SRO-sanctioned events (each with two races) featuring a field of homologated GR86 production models that have been modified for racing with stock engines.

Under the banner of its Gazoo Racing (a high-performance brand relatively new to North America but synonymous with Dakar Rally champion Nasser Al-Attiyah), Toyota will join Mazda, Porsche, Ferrari and Lamborghini as the latest automaker to run a single-make U.S. series (with Ford recently announcing plans for its own in the near future).

It’s grassroots-level amateur racing for manufacturers that are accustomed to racing at motorsports’ highest levels, but there are many benefits through competition, driver development and marketing despite the lower profile.

“It’s not the easiest thing or cheapest thing to do,” TRD executive commercial director Jack Irving told NBC Sports. “But there’s massive value to be a part of it and have our DNA in the cars. You get to race a bunch and get a bunch of data. You get to engage directly in feedback from the people beating those cars up.”

The GR86s being raced are very similar to the street versions that retail for about $35,000 at dealerships that annually sell several thousand.

“It’s a test of the car and your design,” Irving said. “We take an engineered vehicle designed to spec for the road and then apply our resources to make it race ready. Some of those things cross over.

The first floor of Toyota Racing Development’s Mooresville facility that finished the vehicles for the new GR Cup (Swikar Patel/TRD).

“Everyone approaches it differently. It’s a marketing piece for us. It’s a development piece for drivers. We’re supporting grass roots racing. This is a very long-term deal for us. This isn’t something we’re doing two years and done. It’s got a long-term vision. There’s big value in it, and there’s a lot of responsibility with that, too.

“You’re ultimately supporting it. You’re not just selling cars into a series and hoping it goes well. You have to be involved in a very material way to make sure it goes off well and has your fingerprints and represents the brand.”

Early indications have been solid. The GR Cup cars were rolled out on iRacing in January and immediately became one of the platform’s most popular vehicles (with 212-horsepower engines, the cars handle well and are difficult to spin).

TRD’s GR86 factory floor (Swikar Patel/TRD).

TRD has sold 33 cars for GR Cup with 31 racing in Sonoma, easily surpassing initial expectations.

“Our target was to sell 20 cars in the first year, and we could have sold 50 if not for supply chain issues with some vendors,” TRD president David Wilson told NBC Sports. “We basically came up with the idea of taking the GR86 and looking at what it would take to turn that into a little race car and do it affordably and competitively, and what’s come along with that is just a tremendous interest level. It seems like a market that perhaps has been underserved right now.”

Here’s a deeper look at the Toyota Gazoo Racing GR Cup and how the manufacturer built the new series:


THE CARS

The race cars start as production models that are shipped directly from the factory in Japan to a port in Charleston, South Carolina. After being trucked to the Mooresville facility, they are stripped and sent to Joe Gibbs Racing to be outfitted with a roll cage.

Upon return to TRD, the transmission and stock engine is added. The body remains virtually the same as the street version with a slightly altered hood, decklid and splitter for ride height and aerodynamics.

Jack Irving (Swikar Patel/TRD)

The cars mostly are customized to help manage the heat – the stock versions aren’t designed to handle the oil that sloshes around in the high-speed left- and right-hand turns on the road and street courses of the GR Cup schedule. TRD puts about two dozen parts on the cars, using Stratasys 3-D Printers to manufacture many on site (which allows flexibility for adjusting on the fly during R&D). In addition to help with cooling, many of the tweaks focus on allowing a limited number of setup changes.

“You don’t have a lot of ability to adjust these cars,” Irving said. “It was done on purpose. The intent was you have three spring sets, and you can adjust the shocks and do air pressure. That’s it. We seal the engine and components of it. We dyno everything. Everyone is within range to create as consistent a series as we can.

“Some of that is to mimic what Mazda did. They’ve done a really good job with their series. Porsche, Ferrari and other OEMs have done it very well. We had a learning that was easier to go through their book and see the Cliffs Notes version to get where we are.”

After taking delivery, GR Cup teams are responsible for transporting the cars to each track (and can buy up to three sets of Continental tires per event). Toyota brings two parts trucks to each track


THE SCHEDULE AND SCENE

After Sonoma, the GR Cup will visit Circuit of the Americas (May 5-7), Virginia International Raceway (June 16-18), the streets of Nashville (Aug. 4-6), Road America (Aug. 25-27), Sebring International Raceway (Sept. 22-24) and Indianapolis Motor Speedway (Oct. 6-8).

Though Nashville (IndyCar’s Music City Grand Prix) and Indy (SRO’s eight-hour Intercontinental Challenge) are part of weekends with bigger headliners, the GR Cup mostly will be the second-billed series (behind SRO’s Fanatech GT World Challenge) for events that will draw a few thousand. Sonoma had a crowd of about 4,000 last year, and SRO Motorsports America president Greg Gill said its events draw a maximum of about 13,000 over three days.

“There are some iconic venues, and the SRO it’s not IMSA,” Wilson said. “It’s got a different feel to it. It’s not the show. IMSA is kind of the show. I actually think it’s a good place for us to start, because it’s a little bit under the radar relatively speaking. It’s not a venue where you see the grandstands full of fans. It’s very much racers and their families. It’s got a neat vibe to it because it’s kind of small. So for our first effort as a single-make series, it’s the right place for us.”

Toyota GR Cup
The interior of the GR86 that will be raced in the GR Cup (Swikar Patel/TRD).

Though the attendance will be much smaller, Toyota still is bringing a large hospitality and marketing activation area with two 56-foot trucks that will provide a central gathering area for the series.

Teams’ entry fees will include meals there and provide a place to connect with Toyota engineers and other officials.

“I think we have a very different way of engaging with our group of drivers, and this series is similar to that,” Irving said. “Knowing that this isn’t going to get 100K people watching, but we want to have a direct connection with the drivers and understand their feelings about car, how do we make it better and empower them to be brand ambassadors for GR.”


BUDGETS, PURSES AND TEAMS

Toyota has positioned the GR Cup as filling a price gap between the Mazda MX-5 Cup (a spec Miata Series known for high-quality racing at very low costs) and the Porsche Carrera Cup

“If you look at the ladder of MX5 to Porsche Cup, the difference in cost is massive,” TRD general manager Tyler Gibbs told NBC Sports. “We slot in closer to Miata than Porsche. We’ll slot another car in potentially in the future above that. It’s a good place for us from a price point perspective. Our road car is slightly more expensive than a Miata, so it makes sense our performance on the car is higher than Miata.”

A GR Cup car will cost $125,000. Full-season costs will vary depending on how much teams spend on equipment and transportation with estimates from $15-35K per event. So a competitive full season probably could be accomplished in the $250,000-$300,000 range.

Toyota GR Cup

“The goal was if you can ‘Six Pack’ it like Kenny Rogers and throw it in the back of a trailer, that would be amazing for us,” said Irving, referencing a movie about being an independent racer in NASCAR. “That would make it more of what we hoped it would turn into, just being as accessible as we possibly can make it.”

Toyota has tried to bridge the gap by posting a purse of $1 million for the season. Each race pays $12,000 to win (through $5,000 for eighth) with the season champion earning $50,000.

“Our hope was if you won, the prize money would cover the cost of that weekend,” Gibbs said. “We’re not all the way there. But almost there.”

Toyota also has posted an additional $5,000 (on top of prize money) to the highest-finishing woman in every race (which dovetails with SRO’s 50 percent female-led executive team structure).

GR86 Manufacturing at GRG before the first 3 cars are picked up.
—Swikar Patel/TRD

“If you’re a female driver who wins, you could get very close to sustainable” and cover a team’s race weekend costs, Irving said.

There are four women (Mia Lovell, Toni Breidinger, Cat Lauren and Isabella Robusto) slated for the full schedule.

The 31 cars will be fielded across more than a dozen teams including Smooge Racing (which fields GT4 Supras in SRO) and Copeland Motorsports (with Tyler Gonzalez, a four-time winner in MX-5 Cup). After a test last month at the Charlotte Motor Speedway Roval, teams began taking delivery on Feb. 24.


THE SANCTIONING BODY

Toyota fields Lexus in the GT categories of the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship but elected to go with the SRO Motorsports Group (“SRO” stands for Stephane Ratel Organization; Ratel is the founder and CEO) as the sanctioning body for the GR Cup.

With a heavy focus on GT racing, SRO’s marquee events are 24-hour races at the Nurburgring in Germany and Spa in Belgium. In the United States, SRO primarily is focused on GT3 sprint racing, and Gill said it’s viewed as a “gateway to IMSA” and its endurance events.

In choosing SRO, Gibbs said “the schedule was a big part of it.” GR Cup races will be held almost exclusively on Saturday and Sunday mornings in a consistency that would have been difficult with IMSA (which runs a greater volume of bigger series).

“Our people can show up Friday, race Saturday and Sunday and be on the way home Sunday afternoon,” Gibbs said. “For our customer for this car, that was important. They still have jobs and particularly the younger drivers have to go to school. The SRO really fit us. They were very interested.”

Irving also was drawn to SRO’s flexibility with digital media right and free livestreams of races that Toyota can use on its platforms.

Toyota GR Cup
The SR86 in testing at the Charlotte Motor Speedway Roval (TRD).

Said Irving: “It’s hard to get a schedule that made sense and having a break between races so an amateur can repair their cars and have a month to regroup was a big deal. The long-term vision of SRO was a big part of that. IMSA runs a lot of classes. How we fit in was difficult. Would they have done things to make it work, yeah. But they just didn’t work for the vision we were doing. This is its own thing for us.”

Gill said the SRO is focused on “customer racing” that balances individual interests against factory programs – while still putting an emphasis on the importance of manufacturers such as Toyota.

“We were very impressed with the development of sports car racing at Toyota and what they wanted to do for the brand and the very strategic way they looked at things,” Gill told NBC Sports. “We had enjoyed real success and had a lot of admiration for the programs that Honda and Mazda developed with sports car racing at the grass roots and entry level. We thought they’d done an excellent job. Toyota has taken it to another level and should be commended because it’s good for the entire industry.”


GAZOO RACING AND THE FUTURE

Irving said Toyota has set a goal of turning Gazoo Racing into the premier performance brand in the United States within a decade, and the GR Cup is part of that thrust.

Gazoo Racing is the baby of Toyota Motor Corp. president Akio Toyoda, who founded a separate company called “Garage Racing” while racing under a pseudonym for many years.

Toyoda, who eventually would race a Lexus LFA at Nurburgring, eventually transitioned the program into Gazoo Racing (Gazoo translates to photographs in Japanese; Toyoda often took pictures of vehicles he wanted to build and race) as he rose through the ranks of Toyota.

Toyota GR Cup

“The concept of the brand is we’re going to build cars that are fun to drive, not just for accountants,” Gibbs said.
Irving said the intent of GR is “the car is born on track and not the boardroom.” In order to be certified by Toyota for Gazoo Racing, the GR86 had to decrease its lap time by a certain percentage over its street model.

In the long-term, Irving said Toyota could work with another series to adapt the GR86 to endurance races. But in the short-term, there are plans to roll out a “dealer class,” possibly by its COTA round in May.

“That’s our version of a softball league with dealership principals who purchase cars and race against each other,” Wilson said with a laugh. “As competitive as dealers are, we’ll sell a lot of spare parts. It becomes a way to generate competition amongst our dealer body, and we’re going to have some fun with it.”

Toyota GR Cup
Toyota Racing Development’s fleet of GR86s shortly before GR Cup teams began taking delivery (Swikar Patel/TRD).