Photo courtesy of IMSA

Sean Rayhall’s international journey: From Sebring to Paul Ricard

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Sean Rayhall, one of America’s rising driving talents, will file a series of blogs throughout the year chronicling his dual season in both the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship with the Panoz DeltaWing Racing team and in the European Le Mans Series, with Graff Racing in its Ligier JS P3 Nissan. His first looks at the run from the Mobil 1 Twelve Hours of Sebring Fueled by Fresh from Florida to the ELMS official preseason test at Paul Ricard. -Ed.

Hello everyone! This is a quick recap about my past few weeks, and what it takes to be an American sports car driver racing internationally.

So, the Sebring 12-hour week started early for me. I got in Sunday night, so it opened my Monday to be able to golf with some of my team members, and do some cycling with others. With a long week ahead, you want to take the chance when you can to soak up some Florida sun, and spend quality team with the guys and gals who work tirelessly to prepare and run our Panoz DeltaWing race car! On Tuesday and Wednesday, I coached my Mazda Prototype Lites driver, Todd Slusher, who races for ONE Motorsports. He actually went on to get his first win in the Masters class that Friday, in the second race!

Once it came to Thursday and Friday, we got down to business with the Panoz DeltaWing going on track for the first time for practice and qualifying. The conditions were completely different versus when we tested here in February, which meant we had a lot of work to do before race time on Saturday.

This year’s Sebring 12-hour was quite challenging, especially as I had missed the race last year. We had mixed conditions, and also, some ECU issues caused our A/C system to fail in the car – that made it extremely hot during the race. After the rain delay (two hour, 15-minute red flag), it basically shook out we were each going to do three hours straight at a time. Physically, I was absolutely beat afterwards!

Sebring International Raceway isn’t a track that really suits our race car, so we were super proud of the job we’d done all race. We were on the lead lap, fighting for sixth place overall, until a problem with the steering rack developed with 15 minutes left. I was gutted for my team, because they worked so hard and we had made so many gains the past few months. Still, that’s racing! My next race with them will be at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca in May, and I know we’ll be back stronger.

It wasn’t all bad, though. That day, my girlfriend Danielle won the Miss Sebring Bikini contest, so we did a bit of celebrating that night before I was straight onto Dr. (Don) Panoz’s plane at 9 a.m. the next morning. Dr. Panoz helped make this logistical situation happen – he ensured I could be back to Atlanta to catch a flight straight to France for the European Le Mans Series Prologue.

My sweet mother helped a ton with this, too. Not gonna lie! She picked me up from the airport and drove me to my parents’ house; within a couple hours I’d showered while she threw my clothes in the wash, made me some food, repacked my bag, and then took me straight back to another airport. Yeah, OK, “momma’s boy” or not, I’ll take it… she was awesome!!

My Delta flight connected in Amsterdam to go to Marseille, but there’d been a delay in Amsterdam due to a strike the French were having with air control. I didn’t fully understand what was going on, but in a few hours they got us on the plane and I wasn’t going to be too late this Monday afternoon. As it turned my co-drivers John (Falb) and Enzo (Potolicchio) were delayed a bit longer than I was, so by the time they landed and we all did an hour trek to the track, it was about 7 p.m.

We had to prepare that night for the test ahead – we had to do a seat fit that evening. So it was about 11 by the time we got back to the hotel, and the chef was leaving… so we had to beg and ask to get him back in the kitchen, so we didn’t have to starve! This wasn’t a basic American-type hotel with vending machines – there’s nothing for miles outside of this place! So that’s part of the learning process.

The next day of testing was pretty difficult, because we had braking issues until the night session. By then, we got it straightened away and were able to end on top of the timesheets. Even better, the team had made huge steps with the car even though our lap times didn’t show it, due to the traffic!

So the trip back home went alright, other than the fact John and I were sharing a rental car, but his flight was at 7:30 a.m. and mine wasn’t until 10. We got up around 4 a.m. to make sure security wasn’t too busy for him – and we also had to be cognizant of the recent tragedy in Belgium, where we had our thoughts and prayers.

You do wonder about booking a 7:30 a.m. flight when you’re staying an hour away, though… and we discussed this at length on the trip to the airport. I did at least find a bench to sleep on for two hours before my flight.

Once home, there was no rest either. I got back to the home land around 6 p.m., and it’s been followed by moving into a new place here in Atlanta at 9 a.m. the next day!

What a crazy few weeks of highs and lows, but I’m so fortunate to be able to have this crazy schedule and get to do it with great people around me! Until next time…

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.