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DiZinno: Cross-continent ecstasy and agony in Le Mans, 2016

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While France is the host country and Europe the host continent for the 24 Hours of Le Mans, it felt as though this year two other continents stole the headlines and dominated the proceedings.

It was the year of North America and Japan at Le Mans, for both positive and negative reasons.

NORTH AMERICA’S 2016 ASSAULT

The North American invasion occurred first. A boatload of teams – the phalanx of Fords, the pair of factory Corvettes, the talented Ferrari privateer teams, and the handful of LMP2 squads – and their respective crews, staff and PR reps, made a greater impact on this year’s Le Mans than we’d been used to seeing in recent years.

LE MANS, FRANCE – JUNE 19: The Chip Ganassi Racing Ford GT of Sebastien Bourdais, Joey Hand and Dirk Muller drives during the Le Mans 24 Hour race at the Circuit de la Sarthe on June 19, 2016 in Le Mans, France. (Photo by Ker Robertson/Getty Images)

Ford unapologetically came in to this year’s Le Mans declaring its intention to reprise its 1966 1-2-3 finish with the simply sinister new Ford GT, a car that dropped as many jaws for its performance as its looks.

Early in the race week signs looked ominous that the Fords hadn’t shown their full hand at the Test Day, which mirrored concerns from the opening two FIA World Endurance Championship races where they hadn’t fully unleashed their potential either. The second the first 3:51 lap time was thrown down, the words “uh oh” were likely uttered countless times.

Not that they were the only manufacturer that appeared to snooker the rules makers. Ferrari revealed its pace ability of its new turbocharged 488 GTE at the same time. It left the triumvirate of Corvette, Aston Martin and Porsche befuddled, bemused and, to a certain degree, angry, with what was happening.

Not even an unprecedented Balance of Performance change on the Friday seemed to make the difference. The Fords and Ferraris had it in hand from the off – they always did – and barring reliability pitfalls they had their race set in GTE-Pro from the off. Brad Pitt being there with A.J. Baime’s “Go Like Hell: Ford, Ferrari and Their Battle for Speed and Glory at Le Mans” book as a backdrop seemed all too convenient…

Still, these teams and manufacturers all had a race to run, and putting BoP aside for a moment, Le Mans is still a race of human drama, determination, perseverance and emotion, to match the efforts of the cars on track.

The Fords still had to run reliably for 24 hours. Barring a star-crossed effort for the No. 67 Ford Team UK entry, they did. And five months ago at the Rolex 24 at Daytona, you wouldn’t have written that in as a sure bet.

That speaks to the tireless devotion and dedication of their crew, many of whom were new to Le Mans for the first time, who simply got on with the job in the face of the BoP drama and built the best, most reliable cars they could. Say what you will about Ford corporate and their monetary investment if you want, but you cannot not appreciate the efforts of those who’ve sunk so many man and woman hours into the project.

Seeing those from IndyCar afforded a chance to go over to Le Mans with IndyCar having mercifully allowed a break in the schedule this year – Sebastien Bourdais, Scott Dixon and Chip Ganassi Racing managing director Mike Hull in particular – was a welcome opportunity for some of this generation’s greatest talents to showcase their ability on a worldwide stage. Dixon promptly set a new track record in his first trip to Le Mans. For Bourdais, winning in his hometown of Le Mans must be an especially sweet moment, and it’s arguably the best story of the Ford winning at Le Mans narrative 50 years later.

LE MANS, FRANCE – JUNE 19: Mechanics refuel the number 82 Risi Competizione Ferrari 488 during the Le Mans 24 Hour race at the Circuit de la Sarthe on June 19, 2016 in Le Mans, France. (Photo by Ker Robertson/Getty Images)

Ferrari put up a most valiant fight courtesy of Risi Competizione, the outstanding Houston privateer team who’s flown the flag for Ferrari for so many years. In Risi’s first Le Mans in six years, they simply didn’t miss a beat, and the trio of Giancarlo Fisichella, Toni Vilander and – it must be said – the surprisingly clean Matteo Malucelli drove a near faultless race in the team’s No. 82 car.

The shame here is that we were robbed of Ford winning the race where the rule makers had no impact, where it could have been a Ford vs. Ferrari, vs. Corvette, vs. Aston Martin, vs. Porsche showdown. The reasoning was a mash-up of BoP, different points in the manufacturers’ cycles for their production cars, and the variation between cars built for the new 2016 regulations and those that were updated from 2015. The turbo cars had a huge advantage from the off and the fact the rule makers didn’t peg them back further was the disappointment. A Ford win might have meant more had it been in a proper duel with more than one other manufacturer.

The other American teams did what they could.

Risi, as noted, finished second in spite of a curious and controversial late-race penalty assessed inside the final 20 minutes for one side of its leader lights not being illuminated.

Mattioli, Segal, Sweedler and Bell. Photo: Scuderia Corsa
Mattioli, Segal, Sweedler and Bell. Photo: Scuderia Corsa

Corvette Racing’s Le Mans was a tough one. The team never had the pace – not through any fault of its own – but it wasn’t in its usual challenging for win position. That came down primarily to the BoP. Tommy Milner was trying and you can’t fault his effort prior to his accident in the morning hours.

Giacomo Mattioli’s Scuderia Corsa, a team that didn’t even exist five years ago, has now won Le Mans in its second crack. Bill Sweedler has become one of sports car racing’s gentlemen driver greats, and his tireless dedication and consistent racecraft has been rewarded – he and NBCSN IndyCar analyst Townsend Bell now have won Daytona, Sebring and Le Mans together as a unit. Meanwhile Jeff Segal is one of sports car racing’s most underrated stars and his impact to Ferrari’s development of its 458 and 488 models cannot be understated. Seeing them win in GTE-Am was simply brilliant.

Shank's No. 49 Ligier. Photo: Honda
Shank’s No. 49 Ligier. Photo: Honda

Michael Shank Racing? I’ve written this before, but it’s hard not to root for them, even in an impartial role. Continuing with the Ohio theme of this weekend – the Cleveland Cavaliers having won their first NBA title late Sunday night – Shank is the “everyman” you could see in a local grocery store who’s a racing lifer, whose crew has been so dedicated to him, who in Ozz Negri and John Pew have developed such a great working chemistry and fan following, and who finally fulfilled his dream of taking his team from Pataskala, Ohio to Le Mans. That Negri, Pew and factory-ace-in-waiting Laurens Vanthoor got a ninth in class, 14th overall result after a flawless drive was merely the cherry on top.

Extreme Speed Motorsports’ pair of outstanding liveried Paul Mitchell Ligier JS P2 Nissans didn’t have the result either desired but brought a dogged determination to make the finish with both cars.

Krohn Racing was much the same, Tracy Krohn having dedicated more than a decade to Le Mans as he and longtime co-driver Nic Jonsson set a record for most consecutive Le Mans starts as co-drivers together.

That doesn’t even get into the rest of the American drivers who raced – of note, Gustavo Menezes won on debut in LMP2 – but it was clear America had a massive impact on this year’s race.

Of course, overall, so did Japan.

THE LAND OF THE RISING SUN SEES WIN HOPES SET SUDDENLY

LE MANS, FRANCE - JUNE 19: Kazuki Nakajima of Toyota Gazoo Racing reacts in his car after suffering engine problems while leading at the end of the Le Mans 24 Hour race handing victory to the Porsche Team at the Circuit de la Sarthe on June 19, 2016 in Le Mans, France. (Photo by Ker Robertson/Getty Images)
LE MANS, FRANCE – JUNE 19: Kazuki Nakajima of Toyota Gazoo Racing reacts in his car after suffering engine problems while leading at the end of the Le Mans 24 Hour race handing victory to the Porsche Team at the Circuit de la Sarthe on June 19, 2016 in Le Mans, France. (Photo by Ker Robertson/Getty Images)

Japan is a country that’s known for its resiliency, its bravery, its fighting spirit. It’s a culture where niceties are not only embraced, but also expected. It’s a country that has given so much to the motorsports over the years with several manufacturers (Toyota, Honda, Mazda, Nissan).

And this year, this race, was meant to be Toyota’s. It was meant to be for Japan.

It wasn’t.

Ford’s dominance in GTE-Pro was forecast. Same for the Oreca 05/Alpine A460 chassis in LMP2. The venerable Ferrari F458 Italia had the edge in GTE-Am.

LMP1, however, was a wide-open game. Porsche updated its 2015 challenger. Toyota came at it with a new car. Audi brought a completely new car. The thinking pre-race was Rebellion Racing could score a shock overall podium with the hybrids hitting reliability pitfalls.

Toyota – the blend that was the best of both worlds – moved from lurker to leader in the early hours and asserted itself as the manufacturer to beat.

Its two cars fought hard and drove quickly. Mike Conway had arguably his best stints yet in LMP1 and had positioned the marque’s No. 6 Toyota TS050 Hybrid in position to win. That was then extended by the efforts of Stephane Sarrazin and Kamui Kobayashi, although a late spin for Kobayashi and a subsequent trip to the garage cost the car three laps.

It didn’t seem like much at the time but as it turned out, the loss of the second car from win contention would prove problematic.

World Champions Anthony Davidson and Sebastien Buemi – two drivers who like their third driver, Kazuki Nakajima, never had the right timing or opportunities in F1 – were set to secure a famous Le Mans win for Toyota in the No. 5 car.

LE MANS, FRANCE - JUNE 19: The Toyota Gazoo Racing is pushed back to parc ferme after suffering engine problems at the end of the Le Mans 24 Hour race handing victory to the Porsche Team at the Circuit de la Sarthe on June 19, 2016 in Le Mans, France. (Photo by Ker Robertson/Getty Images)
LE MANS, FRANCE – JUNE 19: The Toyota Gazoo Racing is pushed back to parc ferme after suffering engine problems at the end of the Le Mans 24 Hour race handing victory to the Porsche Team at the Circuit de la Sarthe on June 19, 2016 in Le Mans, France. (Photo by Ker Robertson/Getty Images)

But inside the final 10 minutes, the land of the rising sun saw its win hopes set as Nakajima ground to a halt with a loss of power. It simply didn’t seem real.

It was the cruelest of blows. You needed only to look at the faces of those in the Toyota garage to see the sheer shock.

Porsche won as the Toyota stopped. It was Toyota, though, that won hearts and will live on as the lasting memory of this year’s Le Mans.

Watching from home in North America as opposed to being on site (I have been fortunate to go to Le Mans four times), my heart was in my throat as the final act built to its crescendo. I – and I’m sure many others – had to rewrite most of the main story as Toyota’s loss was sealed, Porsche’s shock win secured.

It took a bit of time to reflect undoubtedly but I was left thinking about what the win for Toyota would have meant to Japan, a country that’s been rocked in recent years by natural disasters and who has only had one Le Mans winner in its history – Mazda, 25 years ago.

Mazda, which has long used the marketing line of being the only Japanese manufacturer to win at Le Mans, and whose presence in both North America and Japan is obvious, couldn’t have been classier in watching Toyota’s heartbreak:

Porsche and Audi were both incredibly gracious, themselves.

Seeing the outpouring of emotion for Toyota in the wake of their loss was the ultimate takeaway from the race, even more than Ford’s win 50 years later.

Because it felt more real, not something you could forecast.

Le Mans is an amazing, yet cruel, event. Emotions ebb and flow throughout the 24 hours and the week leading up to it.

Le Mans creates a mix of agony and ecstasy regardless of where you watch it from.

Le Mans, 2016, has done that once again in an incredible, indelible way.

New schedule has Josef Newgarden seeing double (points) again in 2020

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Two-time NTT IndyCar Series champion Josef Newgarden of Team Penske believes the latest revised schedule for 2020 will change his approach to the season.

The new schedule has the defending IndyCar champion looking at ways to double the possibilities for a second consecutive championship.

“When I look at the whole schedule they released now, I look at it as double-points as a whole in all of them,” Newgarden told NBCSports.com Monday. “Iowa is double points on a short oval. There are double points at the Indy GP because there are two races and a road course. Then double points at Laguna, which is a different road course than IMS. And there is double points in the Indianapolis 500.”

IndyCar announced to team owners two weeks ago that the season finale (once scheduled for Laguna Seca and now at St. Petersburg) will no longer be a double-points event. But Monday’s schedule revision essentially adds three double points-style races to the Indy 500’s double-points format, Newgarden said.

“Those are four events where you have to be quite strong,” Newgarden said. “They are all very different from each other. Each one is critical to get right. Iowa has a chance to be the most difficult. From a physical standpoint, it’s already a physical track for one race. To double it up on one weekend will be quite the toll for the drivers.

“It will be a very big test physically to see who will get that weekend right. You can bag a lot of points because of it.”

Just 12 days after the first schedule revision, IndyCar officials announced another revised schedule Monday because of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic.

The new schedule features doubleheader weekends at Iowa Speedway in July and Laguna Seca in September. There is an additional race on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course Oct. 3.

That race will be known as the IndyCar Harvest Grand Prix. It will be the second time in Indianapolis Motor Speedway history that an IndyCar race is held in the fall. The only other time was the Harvest Auto Racing Classic, a series of three races won by Johnny Aitken on Sept. 9, 1916.

The Chevrolet Detroit Grand Prix scheduled for May 30-31 will be dropped from the 2020 schedule. Michigan has a “Stay at Home” order that won’t be lifted in time to start construction of the Belle Isle street course.

Penske Entertainment CEO Mark Miles said the Detroit event will return in 2021.

The IMS road course essentially will have a doubleheader spaced out by nearly three months. The first race will be the GMR IndyCar Grand Prix on July 4, and the second will be Oct. 3 in the Harvest Grand Prix.

The extra doubleheaders combined with the loss of Detroit gives IndyCar a 15-race schedule for 2020. It started out as a 17-race campaign, but April’s Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama, the Acura Grand Prix of Indianapolis and the AutoNation IndyCar Classic at Circuit of The Americas (COTA) have been canceled. The season-opening Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg is being revived as the season finale on a TBA weekend in October.

Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images

Newgarden also is excited about the chance to run at Indianapolis for three major races in one season. Of course, that all depends on how soon IndyCar can return to action because of the global pandemic.

“I’m continually excited about the thought of getting back to the race track,” Newgarden said. “We would love to be there now, but we can’t. With the current situation, everyone is trying to do the best they can to pitch in and do their part so we can get back to the track as quickly as possible.

“I’m excited to get back to racing at some point in the future. To see that is planned to start at Texas is still great. IndyCar has done a great job staying active and fluid with the ever-changing dynamics and current situation.

“We have three opportunities at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. There are a lot of chances to get it right at the Mecca of our sport.

“I have a lot of trust and faith in IndyCar and Roger, and they are doing their best to stay on top of the situation.”

The one downer to the revised schedule is the loss of the Detroit doubleheader, a very important weekend to Team Penske because Roger Penske also owns the Detroit race. It’s a chance to showcase the series in front of as “Motor City” crowd, which is also the home to the Penske Corp.

“It’s a shame that we miss any event this year,” Newgarden said. “As a racer, you look forward to each one of them. If any of them drop off, it’s a tough pill. Detroit is more so because it is such an important race for us at Team Penske. It’s in our backyard for Penske Corp. Also, our relationship with Chevrolet, how much they put I that event and try to get it right for everybody involved. It’s tough to not have a go at that this year.

“I think of the volunteers. The Detroit weekend is so well run and executed with such a positive momentum behind it for the last eight years that I’ve gone there. I’ve always enjoyed that weekend off the back of the Indy 500.

“It’s a shame we will miss that this year, but I look forward to getting back there in 2021 and getting it started again.”

Follow Bruce Martin on Twitter at @BruceMartin_500