Le Mans: Initial thoughts on an instant classic


LE MANS, France – This past weekend’s 24 Hours of Le Mans left me feeling with something I don’t often feel at a race track in modern times:

Damn excited and thankful for what I saw.

You occasionally forget how dull an only-personality, or only-spec car championship can be. When the rules makers fail to allow for true innovation, outside the box thinking or other lack of forward outlook, things can get stale rather quickly.

Quite by contrast, Le Mans and the FIA World Endurance Championship continue to offer unparalleled diversity and variety among the 56 cars entered.

Just in the top class alone, you have four incredibly different options:

The simply spellbinding Porsche 919 Hybrid was already a fast enough car last year, and now has gone next level with its energy restoration and simply surreal kick off the corners with its 8 MJ hybrid system. All this with just a 4-cylinder!

You still have the Audi R18 e-tron quattro, the benchmark manufacturer for endurance racing this century, which maintains a whoosh and silent stealth bomber feel that sends chills down the spine.

The Toyota TS040 Hybrid is a more conventional prototype by crazed LMP1 standards – a naturally aspirated V8 with its supercapacitor – but one that still makes a great noise when it goes past.

Then there’s the debuting, radical, front-engine, front-wheel drive Nissan GT-R LM NISMO. The thing shouldn’t work, and right now isn’t going particularly smoothly, but my goodness is it wacky. And the amount of buzz they build around the car makes people care, which is half the battle sports car racing has to begin with.

That’s without even touching the LMP2 class, where 19 cars featured 11 different chassis/engine combinations, and the GTE ranks, which featured the likes of American mights Corvette and Viper matched up against Ferrari, Aston Martin and Porsche.

In short, LMP1 racing in 2015 at its pinnacle is the zenith of what modern racing can and should be today, and what we witnessed over the last 24 hours as all the different ways of getting there fastest took their shots, will go down in history as an instant classic.

It will truly take some time to sink in.

Some other brief thoughts:

  • Porsche Team, not Porsche Driver: A certain Formula 1 ace named Nico Hulkenberg will undoubtedly get a bunch of ink today, and it’s likely some media outlets will write the narrative as though it was only the Force India driver who did the task and that it may have been “easy” for an F1 driver to come in and win on his Le Mans debut. That couldn’t be further from the truth. The team element in sports car racing, particularly with having a multiple-driver lineup, is the sole reason why teams win or lose – while a driver can account for deficiencies in single-seater racing on occasion, rare can one driver single-handedly rise a team to the occasion in sports cars. So while Hulkenberg’s debut drive was a good one, it was the efforts of co-drivers Nick Tandy and Earl Bamber – Porsche’s rising factory GT aces – that should get as much ink today.
  • Audi’s issues: It’s rare that Audi ever has a Le Mans where issues hit all three cars, but that was the case this weekend for the trio of Audi R18 e-tron quattros. But between an engine cover coming loose (No. 7), a crash and nose change (No. 8) and suspension replacement (No. 9) all striking, each of the four rings’ three bullets missed their target. A podium extends Audi’s streak at Le Mans to 17 years running, but the result ends a five-in-a-row win streak and the run of 13 wins in 15 years.
  • Toyota’s anonymity: Was Toyota even in the race? Physically, yes. Engagingly, no. An outright pace gap existed all week and the manufacturer’s idea of playing the long game, hoping for reliability issues for ze Germans, simply did not pan out as planned. Sixth and eighth in the top eight overall is a tough one to swallow.
  • Quality, not quantity, in GTE: GTE-Pro turned into a battle of survival with the winning Corvette C7.R winning by multiple laps, but all manufacturers, save for Porsche, figured into the lead equation at some point. GTE-Am saw tough luck for the No. 98 Aston Martin Vantage V8, which was due a win after a dominant drive before the last hour accident for Paul Dalla Lana.
  • LMP2’s dominant drive: KCMG led all but nine laps over 24 hours in the cost-capped prototype class – a simply staggering, near perfect effort from drivers Nicolas Lapierre, Richard Bradley and Matthew Howson in the team’s No. 47 Oreca 05 Nissan, in the car’s Le Mans debut.
  • The fans care: A record crowd of 263,500 was announced Sunday afternoon. That comes after the throngs of fans there you see on Tuesday, for the all-driver autograph session and Friday, for the pit walk and driver parade. It no doubt matches or exceeds the number the Sunday for the Indianapolis 500, although they come throughout the whole of the race and are spread over 8.4 miles rather than 2.5. Still, everywhere you go, the passion is evident.

In tears after the Indianapolis 500, Santino Ferrucci is proud of his third-place finish


INDIANAPOLIS – Santino Ferrucci was in tears after last Sunday’s 107th Indy 500.

The AJ Foyt Racing driver from Woodbury, Connecticut had just driven the best race of his career, only to have the final yellow flag of the race fly just a second or two before he would have been in position for the win.

The field had just been given the green flag with four laps to go and Ferrucci was charging in the No. 14 Chevrolet into Turn 1, about to pass both Josef Newgarden for second place, which would have put him in prime position to draft past Marcus Ericsson for the victory.

JOSEF’S FAMILY TIES: Newgarden wins Indy 500 with wisdom of father, wife

But IndyCar race control issued the third red flag stoppage in the final 15 laps of the race and with Ferrucci 2 inches behind Newgarden’s Chevrolet, he was lined up third.

When IndyCar had the remaining drivers refire the engines for three-quarters of a lap behind the Pace Car followed by a one-lap green and white flag dash to the finish, Ferrucci knew there was little he could do to get past the front two cars.

Newgarden passed Ericsson on the backstretch and went on to take the checkered flag for his first Indianapolis 500 victory. Ericsson was just 0.0974-of-a-second away from winning the Indy 500 for the second year in a row and Ferrucci was 0.5273-of-a-second away from winning his first career NTT IndyCar Series race.

It was a fantastic effort for Ferrucci, but to come so close to winning the biggest race in the world, the kid from Connecticut was heartbroken.

“We were so good this month,” Ferrucci told NBC Sports after climbing out of his car. “When you are that fast all month long, you just want it that much more. The way we did everything to finish the race under green, it’s great for the fans, IndyCar did the right thing, but sometimes it’s a tough pill to swallow restarting third like that when you are really second.

“It’s all timing and scoring. That doesn’t lie. If it says we are third, we are third. It’s very bittersweet.”

When Ericsson and Newgarden were both “Unleashing the Dragon” with the draft-breaking zigzag moves at the end of the race, Ferrucci admitted he was hoping it would play into his favor if those two made contact ahead of him.

“I was hoping and praying because when you are third, that’s all you can do – hope and pray,” Ferrucci said.

His prayers were not answered, but his determination to win the Indianapolis 500 remains undeterred.

He has never finished outside of the top 10 in the Indianapolis 500. Ferrucci was seventh as a rookie in 2019, fourth in 2020, sixth in 2021, 10th last year and third this past Sunday.

“I love this place,” the driver said. “I love coming here. I’m always so comfortable in the race. We are good at avoiding all of the accidents that happened in front of us.

“We will win it eventually. We have to.”

Ferrucci has proven he likes to rise to the big moments.

“I like the pressure,” he said. “We do well under pressure.

“But you have to take third, sometimes.

“We had a really good shot at winning this race. We made the most of it.”

Ferrucci continues to display the uncanny knack for racing hard and avoiding trouble. When he took the lead in the No. 14 car made famous by his team owner, legendary four-time Indianapolis 500 winner AJ Foyt, many of the fans in the crowd of 330,000 roared with approval.

Ferrucci was in front for 11 laps and was in prime position to pounce at the end, before the final 15 laps brought out red flag fever.

Because of that, and the timing of where he was when the last yellow light came on before the final red, put him in a difficult position to win the race.

“It’s just emotional, bittersweet,” he said. “It was emotional getting in the car, which was kind of strange because you feel like there’s a lot of people that really want this, the team really wants this.

“We worked so hard to be where we were. We ran out front all day long. It’s definitely one of the more difficult races that I’ve probably ever run, and just we also knew that we had a really good car.

“We got really close with Felix Rosenqvist when he was wrecking so very thankful, we were able to avoid that. And then yeah, coming to the end, I think on the second to final restart, me and Marcus battling it into 1, and obviously it going red when it did, it’s part of this place, it’s part of racing, it’s part of the Speedway.

“I’m just bummed. I’m sure Marcus Ericsson thinks the same thing I do.

“All three of us could have won it at any point in time.

“Yeah, it’s bittersweet.”

A few days have passed since Ferrucci was crying when he got out of the race car. He celebrated his birthday on Wednesday by mowing his lawn after a 12-hour drive back to his home in Texas. On Thursday morning, he flies to Detroit to get ready for this weekend’s Chevrolet Detroit Grand Prix on the streets of downtown Detroit.

It has given him a chance to reflect on the biggest weekend of his career.

“Everybody saw on national television I was basically crying,” Ferrucci said. “It’s just one of those competitor things in you that there was so much riding on that race, and it was going so well up until that — it finished really well.

“It wasn’t just pressure to perform but emotional pressure to just be there and to know that we probably had that race won, had it gone yellow two seconds later, it’s just kind of heartbreaking. But still, at the end of the day, you come home in third, to join Helio Castroneves and one other driver, (Harry Hartz, who finished second, second, fourth, fourth and second from 1922-1926), in five of your first five starts in top 10s. And, then you really start to look at what you’ve accomplished at the 500 in your first five starts with four different teams and what you did with A.J. Foyt — what we’ve done at AJ Foyt Racing, who hasn’t had a podium or top 3 since the year 2000 at the Speedway.

“There are so many positives, and that day could have been so much worse. We had so many close calls between pit lane and some of the crashes on track that at the end of the day I was just really, really happy.

“I went to bed that night knowing that I did the best I could, the team did the best they could, and that’s the track.”

Ferrucci stressed that he didn’t have a problem with IndyCar race control doing everything in their power to make sure the race finished the distance under green.

“The way that IndyCar finished under green was 100 percent correct for the fans,” Ferrucci said. “It didn’t affect anything for me. What affected me wasn’t the red, it was the yellow.

“The second it went yellow, had it gone yellow two seconds later had they waited, which you can’t wait when you’re crashing, so there’s nothing you can do, I was in third, I was about 6 inches behind Newgarden, and that’s very clear in the video.

“At the end of the day, nothing changed for me. The fact that they actually went red and restarted the race gave me that opportunity to win again. I just didn’t have a great restart because it’s chaotic when you just go. You’ve got to also remember there’s no restart zone.

“At that point when you’re going green for one lap, it was really cool to see the shootout, I’m not going to lie, but you know that they’re going green, so you were literally at the hands of the leader on a completely random — you could start going into 3 in the middle of 3 and 4 out of 4. He could start the race whenever he wanted to start the race instead of in the zone, so it was completely unpredictable.

“(Ericsson) had a really good jump, and I did not. That’s what took me out of the win at the end of the race. It had nothing to do with IndyCar or the red in my opinion.”

Ferrucci and rookie teammate Benjamin Pedersen helped put a smile on 88-year-old AJ Foyt’s face in what started as the one of the saddest months of Foyt’s life after his wife of 68 years, Lucy, died.

Foyt returned to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway dealing with grief, but for the past three weeks, he was able to see his racing team return to prominence.

I think he was really proud,” Ferrucci said of Foyt. “There’s truly two people that understood my emotions and felt my emotions on Sunday. A.J. was one, and Michael Cannon (his engineer) was the other.

“If you look at some of the photos from that day, you can kind of see it in my eyes, just — you really have to have it in your hands and then lose it in your hands to kind of understand that feeling of when you work that hard. You have to understand you’re coming from a team with two cars, a budget that’s a quarter of the size of Penske and Ganassi, and that’s all month long. We wanted it probably that much more than everybody else that day.

“To come up that short, A.J.’s finished second and third on dominant days in the ’70s, and he talked about those races, where we had the car to win. We were by far the best car at the end of that race. Once the Team McLarens were out of it and the 10 car and the 21 had the incident in pit lane, that left us.

“We were the car to win, and yeah, just sitting third knowing there’s nothing you can do, after all that hard work, yeah, it’s a feeling that very few people would understand.

“But he was incredibly proud of I think what the organization accomplished. I’m very proud of Larry and what Larry Foyt has done with the team because Larry has had control of this team since 2007, and to see him get his first podium as a team boss and team owner at the speedway was huge.

“I think everybody was incredibly proud of what we’ve accomplished.”

Follow Bruce Martin on Twitter at @BruceMartin_500