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.

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).