Le Mans: Initial thoughts on an instant classic

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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.

New Chip Ganassi driver Marcus Armstrong will team with boyhood idol Scott Dixon

Marcus Armstrong Scott Dixon
Joe Portlock - Formula 1/Formula Motorsport Limited via Getty Images
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Marcus Armstrong was a Scott Dixon fan his entire life, and when he was 8, the aspiring young racer asked his fellow New Zealander to autograph a helmet visor that he hung on his bedroom wall.

Next year, Armstrong will be Dixon’s teammate.

Armstrong was named Friday as the fourth IndyCar driver in the Chip Ganassi Racing lineup and will pilot the No. 11 next season on road and street courses.

A driver for the five oval races on the 17-race schedule will be named later.

The No. 11 is essentially the No. 48 that seven-time NASCAR champion Jimmie Johnson drove the last two seasons, with Chip Ganassi making the change to run four cars numbered in sequential order. Indianapolis 500 winner Marcus Ericsson drives the No. 8, six-time champion Dixon drives the No. 9, and 2020 IndyCar champion Alex Palou drives the No. 10.

So just who is the second Kiwi in the Ganassi lineup?

A 22-year-old who spent the past three seasons in Formula One feeder series F2, a Ferrari development driver in 2021, and former roommate of Callum Illot and former teammate of Christian Lundgaard – both of whom just completed their rookie IndyCar seasons.

“I’ve always been attracted to the IndyCar championship because it’s one of those championships that’s been really well televised in New Zealand since I was young, mainly because of Scott and his success,” Armstrong told The Associated Press. “As time progressed, as I got closer to F1 and single-seaters, the attraction to IndyCar grew just because of how competitive the championship is – I like to challenge myself and the level of competition in IndyCar is remarkably high.”

Armstrong, from Christchurch, New Zealand, was set to travel from his current home in London to Indianapolis this weekend to meet his new team. He won’t need an introduction to Dixon, the 42-year-old considered the best IndyCar driver of his generation and Armstrong’s unequivocal childhood hero.

Last season, Dixon earned his 53rd career victory to pass Mario Andretti for second on the all-time list. Dixon has driven for Ganassi in all but 23 of his 345 career starts.

“For a long time I’ve been a Scott Dixon fan. I don’t want to make him cringe with our age difference,” Armstrong told the AP.

Despite the two-decade age difference, Armstrong never considered someday racing with Dixon a fantasy.

He convinced his father after winning five national karting championships to allow him to leave New Zealand for Italy at age 14, where he moved by himself to pursue a racing career. Armstrong said as soon as he’d received parental permission, he’d never look back.

Armstrong was in Formula 4 two years after his move to Italy and won that title in his first season. He won four races and four poles in F3 in the 2018 and 2019 seasons, then collected four wins and eight podiums in three seasons of F2.

“Maybe it’s a strength, or maybe it’s a weakness, but I always thought I was capable of doing great in the sport,” Armstrong told the AP. “I think you probably have to succeed in the sport, you need to believe in yourself. I always pictured myself being in IndyCar.

“As Scott’s teammate? I can’t specifically say I saw that. It’s an extraordinary chain of events.”

Armstrong becomes just the latest driver to leave Europe, where F1 is the pinnacle but has only 20 seats each year. Alexander Rossi began the trend in 2016 when the American left F1 and won the Indianapolis 500 as a rookie. He’s been followed by Ericsson, last season’s Indy 500 winner, Romain Grosjean, Illot, Lundgaard, and on Thursday three-time W Series champion and Williams F1 reserve driver Jamie Chadwick was announced as driver for Andretti Autosport in IndyCar’s second-tier development series.

Armstrong said he could have remained in F2 for a fourth season, but he’d been watching IndyCar for so long, and after conversations with Illot and Lundgaard, he decided to make the move to what he believes is the most balanced racing series in the world. He tested for Dale Coyne Racing at Sebring in October.

He doesn’t know if European racing is done for good, just that he wants to be in IndyCar right now.

“I don’t want to think too far into the future, I’m just grateful for this opportunity that is standing right in front of me,” Armstrong said. “I want to perform as well as I can in the near future and just consolidate myself in the fantastic chance that is IndyCar and just do my best.

“I’m not looking at F1 as a landing spot – I am looking at IndyCar, and that’s exactly why I am here.”