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With 4 in top 8, Honda off to better start at St. Pete than last year

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The 2016 season has started off significantly better for Honda compared to how 2015 began.

In last year’s season-opening Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg, Hondas struggled to find speed and power, with the highest-finishing driver being seventh-place Ryan Hunter Reay.

In addition, Honda had just two other drivers behind Hunter-Reay in the top 10 and nine more from 11th through the rear of the 24-car field.

This past Sunday, though, things had a much more successful air. Hunter-Reay was again the top finishing Honda driver, earning a third-place podium finish.

“Passing a Penske car here for the podium is an accomplishment,” Hunter-Reay said. “They run so well here, every year. I used everything I had to get by [Helio] Castroneves. I used up my rear tires catching him but I think he used his up even more by trying to stay ahead of me.”

Overall, Honda placed four drivers in the top eight finishers, with Mikhail Aleshin (fifth), Takuma Sato (sixth) and Carlos Munoz (eighth).

Hondas also took six places in a row, from 11th through 16th, as well as 19th and 20th in the 22-car field.

“We believe we’ve made significant improvements in both our engine and aero packages this year, and today’s results reflect that,” said Art St. Cyr, President of Honda Performance Development. “Given Team Penske’s historic dominance at St. Petersburg, Ryan Hunter-Reay’s third-place run was an encouraging start to the season.”

One significant note was rookie Conor Daly paced the field for 15 laps mid-race before contact with a curb dropped him to a 13th-place finish.

“It was really nice to lead the race, and fight at the front with the Penske drivers,” Daly said. “I thought we were headed for a great finish. After our last pit stop, I braked late to try to pass [James] Hinchcliffe, but then [Carlos] Munoz came flying up the inside and I had to ride up over the curbs.

“That damaged the front wing, so I had to make an extra stop. But I can’t complain. You always want more, but running competitively like this was a great start to the season.”

Admittedly, there was some disappointment, as the cars of James Hinchcliffe, Takuma Sato and Graham Rahal were all collected in contact from other drivers.

Sato and Hinchcliffe were involved in an opening lap wreck. Both were able to recover, and while Sato was able to rally to a sixth-place finish, Hinchcliffe was involved in another wreck on Lap 57 (that also involved Rahal) that ended his hopes for a top-10 showing.

To view highlights from both the IndyCar race as well as the Acura Motorsports’ Pirelli World Challenge at St. Petersburg, check out this YouTube video from Honda Racing: HPD Trackside.

The next stop on the Verizon IndyCar Series schedule is a Saturday night race under the lights at Phoenix International Raceway on April 2. It will be the first oval race of the season and will be televised on NBCSN at 8 p.m. ET.

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Toyota No. 8 car wins the 24 Hours of Le Mans for third consecutive year

24 Hours of Le Mans

LE MANS, France — Toyota Gazoo’s No. 8 car comfortably won the 24 Hours of Le Mans by five laps Sunday to secure a third straight victory in the prestigious endurance race.

It was also a third consecutive win for Swiss driver Sebastien Buemi and Japan’s Kazuki Nakajima driving. Brendon Hartley was the other driver, having replaced two-time Formula One champion Fernando Alonso.

Buemi and Hartley sat on the side of the car as Nakajima drove toward the podium. Hartley won for a second time after tasting success with the Porsche LMP Team in 2017 before an unhappy season in Formula One.

The Swiss team’s Rebellion No. 1 featured American driver Gustavo Menezes and Brazilian Bruno Senna – the nephew of late F1 great Ayrton Senna.

It finished one lap ahead of Toyota Gazoo’s No. 7, with Rebellion’s No. 3 finishing in fourth place.

For much of the race it looked like Toyota’s No. 7 would win after leading comfortably from pole position. But late into the night the car encountered an engine problem and the 30-minute stop in the stands proved costly.

The race was first held in 1923. A total of 252,500 spectators attended in 2019, but there were none this year when the race started three months late because of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic.

“We miss the fans,” New Zealander Hartley said. “I look forward to seeing all the fans again.”

In other divisions:

United Autosports won the LMP2 division with the entry of Filipe Albuquerque, Paul Di Resta and Phil Hanson.

–In LMGTE Pro, the victory was claimed by Aston Martin Vantage AMR of Maxime Martin, Alex Lynn and Harry Tincknell (who drives for Mazda in the DPi division of IMSA).

–TF Sport won the LMGTE Am class.

The Toyota No. 7 took pole after former F1 driver Kamui Kobayashi narrowly edged out the Rebellion No. 1 team in qualifying.

In damp and humid conditions Mike Conway got away cleanly from the start, while Senna held off Buemi.

After nearly seven hours, Toyota’s No. 8 fell back after a 10-minute stop in the stands to fix a brake-cooling problem on Kazuki Nakajima’s car. Rebellion’s No. 1, driven by Frenchman Norman Nato, took advantage to move into second place behind Toyota’s No. 7.

Then came the decisive moment at 2:40 a.m. as the No. 7 – also featuring Argentine Jose Maria Lopez – encountered a turbo problem. When the car came back out it was back in fourth.

“We had a few problems early in the race,” Nakajima said. “Later they had a bigger issue than us.”

Rebellion’s No. 1 encountered a problem on the hood at around 9 a.m. and the change took six minutes, allowing the Rebellion No. 3 (Nathanael Berthon-Louis Deletraz-Romain Dumas) to close the gap.

It was becoming a tight battle between the two Rebellion cars behind Toyota’s No. 8.

At 12 p.m. Rebellion No. 3 with Dumas behind the wheel was only one second ahead of No. 1 driven by Menezes. Then both cars came in for a driver change with Deletraz swapping for Dumas on a lengthy stop, and Nato for Menezes as Rebellion No. 1 suddenly moved ahead of its team rival.

Dumas, a winner in 2016 with Porsche, appeared unhappy at the strategy decision to bring his car in first and the length of the stop. There were tense explanations in the team garage.

Colombian Tatiana Calderon, an F1 test driver with Alfa Romeo, was in the Richard Mille Racing Team in the LMP2 category. She was joined by German Sophia Florsch – an F3 driver – and Dutchwoman Beitske Visser. They placed ninth out of 24 in their category.