Titles, track breakup, cautions peppering Petit Le Mans

Photo courtesy of IMSA
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BRASELTON, Ga. – The 19th annual Petit Le Mans presented by Harrah’s Cherokee Casino Resort didn’t have a ton of news in the early stages of the race, but it does now as the race has eclipsed the 4-hour mark of the 10-hour race that caps off the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship season.

The race is under its third full-course caution of the race for a track inspection at Turn 3. Just prior to that, there’d been contact as Fred Makowiecki in the No. 912 Porsche North America Porsche 911 RSR hit the rear of Andy Lally, in the No. 44 Magnus Racing Audi R8 LMS.

Class leaders at the 4-hour mark, when the first points in the Tequila Patron North American Endurance Cup are awarded, are:

  • P: 1-10-Jordan Taylor, Corvette DP, 2-5-Joao Barbosa, Corvette DP, 3-60-Ozz Negri, Ligier JS P2 Honda
  • PC: 1-52-Tom Kimber-Smith, 2-38-James French, 3-85-Stephen Simpson
  • GTLM: 1-4-Oliver Gavin, Corvette C7.R, 2-62-Toni Vilander, Ferrari 488 GTE, 3-66-Dirk Mueller, Ford GT
  • GTD: 1-44-Andy Lally, Audi R8 LMS, 2-9-Dion von Moltke, Audi R8, 3-6-Mike Skeen, Audi R8

Here’s some notes thus far:

TITLES CLINCHED

Christina Nielsen drove the opening three-plus hours in the No. 63 Scuderia Corsa Ferrari 488 GT3 and by doing so, secured the GT Daytona class championship for both her and co-driver Alessandro Balzan. If at least one Silver or Bronze-rated driver completes that minimum drive time of three hours, that is enough to score points for the pairing.

Nielsen, the 24-year-old Dane, becomes another female driver to win a major sports car championship. There are others – Melanie Snow won American Le Mans Series’ GTC in 2009 and Amy Ruman in Trans-Am last year – while Nielsen’s comes in the deep GTD field that features upwards of six manufacturers and 12 to 22 cars entered in every race this year.

“I’m sad that this is perhaps the last time I get to run the 488 this year, but it’s absolutely amazing that we ran it and it ran so well,” said Nielsen after her three-hour, 8-minute driving stint, via IMSA.

“It’s a nice car to drive, the team did a great job, good pit stops. This just shows what the team has been doing all year. It’s a pleasure to be a part of, they just do so much right and so little wrong. To call ourselves ‘champions’ this early is unbelievable, but we’ve still got an endurance championship to go for so, game on.”

This is a stunning achievement for Giacomo Mattioli’s Scuderia Corsa team, which has now thus far won the 24 Hours of Le Mans, IMSA GT Daytona and Pirelli World Challenge GTA titles this year.

I spoke to both Nielsen and Balzan on Friday, and will have more from them to come in the wake of this championship achievement.

Meanwhile, when the race took the green flag, Chevrolet clinched both Manufacturer’s Championships in Prototype and GT Le Mans. Both manufacturers also have drivers going for Driver’s Championships – the Nos. 31, 5 and 10 Corvette DP pairings in Prototype and the No. 4 Corvette C7.R pairing in GTLM.

TRACK BREAKUP

The most recent caution saw a portion of the track come up at Turn 3, and required crews to survey it. But rather than it being a too lengthy caution, the race has resumed.

If there is an upside to this bit, this isn’t IMSA Race Director Beaux Barfield’s first rodeo dealing with track breakups. He’s also dealt with this in his former career as IndyCar Race Director at Detroit and Houston.

A COUPLE CAUTIONS

The debris caution as noted above, which turned into a longer caution, and an off by Tomy Drissi in the No. 20 BAR1 Motorsports Oreca FLM09 at Turn 10 are the first two cautions of the race. And now, at four hours and four minutes, we have our third full-course caution of the race.

WOES THUS FAR

The DeltaWing is done with timing chain issues, capping off a frustrating weekend for the hometown team.

The No. 67 Ford Chip Ganassi Racing Ford GT’s chances of usurping the championship from the No. 4 Corvette C7.R in GTLM went away when that car went behind the wall in the third hour. Ryan Briscoe and Richard Westbrook were trying to overcome an 11-point deficit.

The sister No. 3 Corvette C7.R went behind the wall at the start of the third hour with a throttle issue. Jan Magnussen and Antonio Garcia share that car with Mike Rockenfeller.

Mazda’s No. 55 Prototype had a couple offs with Tristan Nunez driving, then a trip to the pits with electronics issues.

Motor issues have hampered the No. 90 Visit Florida Racing Corvette DP of Ryan Dalziel, Marc Goossens and Ryan Hunter-Reay.

Pressing on wounded with what Mike Shank told IMSA Radio was an “issue in the left rear” earlier in the race, and now confirmed as having broken drive pins, is the pace-setting No. 60 Michael Shank Racing Ligier JS P2 Honda of Olivier Pla, Ozz Negri and John Pew.

An alternator belt issue has slowed the No. 16 Change Racing Lamborghini Huracán GT3, driven by Spencer Pumpelly, Corey Lewis and Richard Antinucci.

First car behind the wall with a possible suspension issue was the No. 7 Starworks Motorsport Oreca FLM09 of Stefano Coletti, Quinlan Lall and James Dayson. Coletti then spun again when back on track.

Brake issues have slowed the PC-leading No. 8 Starworks Motorsport entry of David Heinemeier Hansson, Alex Popow and Renger van der Zande.

There’s also been a charging system issue for the No. 100 BMW Team RLL BMW M6 GTLM.

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.”