No. 69 McLaren and No. 35 Porsche. Photo courtesy of IMSA

IMSA: CTSC kicks off its 2017 season today at Daytona

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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – A new era for the Continental Tire SportsCar Challenge begins this weekend at the BMW Performance Challenge at Daytona International Speedway, on two fronts.

GS sees the introduction of new FIA GT4-spec cars, while the series itself sees its first four-hour race, up from the standard two-hour, 45-minute platform (coverage available via live stream on IMSA.com, with audio from IMSA Radio).

As such, that makes handicapping both the race and the season a roll of the dice.

Dean Martin (GS, Ford Mustang GT4) and Connor Bloum (ST, Porsche Cayman) captured the pole positions for today’s race. Qualifying results are linked here.

So beyond the front row and the early story lines, here some of the notes to watch from here:

A REVAMPED GS FIELD 

While nearly all of the small GS field from a year ago returns, how they do so are in different capacities compared to this time 12 months ago.

Multimatic Motorsports’ previous Ford Shelby GT350R-C is history after just a year and a half, replaced by the seemingly Transformers-like new GT4 variant of the new Mustang, that is even more aerodynamically efficient than its predecessor. It was a rocket at the Roar test, which concerned some of the field, and the pace has carried over this week.

Gone too is Billy Johnson from the lineup, through no fault of his own but rather a circuitous regulations tweak that’s left him sidelined. Johnson’s FIA Driver Rating was increased from Gold to Platinum, the highest level of four and reserved for those largely with factory driver status. But IMSA has implemented a rule where Platinum-rated drivers can no longer compete in the series, and thus it’s Johnson out, and Jade Buford back in alongside the indefatigable Scott Maxwell, the Canadian who’s done so much for Multimatic and Ford over the years.

CJ Wilson Racing again has two cars, but the lineups shift. Till Bechtolsheimer will race alongside Marc Miller in the team’s No. 33 Porsche Cayman GT4 while new recruits Damien Faulkner and Russell Ward will share the No. 35 Techemet Porsche. Wilson, who announced Thursday night his plans to race a Porsche GT3 Cup car this year, explained the dynamic of the changed four-hour race.

“The four-hour will be really challenging. You have a lot of different variables and can shuffle things around. When do we use tires? When do you switch drivers? How different is it with two versus three (drivers)? It’s gonna be really different,” Wilson told NBC Sports.

Karl Thomson’s Compass360 Racing as a name has been fused to the edgier, shorter, C360R. With its singular Ford gone, the team now has two of the new McLaren GT4s, and the pairings of Paul Holton and Matt Plumb (No. 76) and Matthew Keegan and Nico Rondet (No. 77) make for strong lineups.

Several-time 2016 race winner Bodymotion Racing (Porsche), Team TGM (two Porsches of the Cayman GT4 MR variety), Muehlner Motorsports America (Porsche), Automatic Racing (adds two new McLarens to its two Aston Martins) and TRG (Aston Martin) are also back in action, but again with little year-to-year carryover. Bodymotion missed this race last year with Cameron Cassels sidelined per a family commitment, and he and Trent Hindman will be keen to impress this year.

And then there are the extra GS entries, which should figure to pack a punch. The two MIA/Pfaff McLaren/Garaga McLaren entries bring that manufacturer’s total up to six for this race. James Sofronas has assembled two solid lineups in his pair of new Porsche Cayman GT4 MRs, which ran late last year at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca and other club race events. Two more Porsches come from championship-caliber Florida-based teams RS1 and BGB Motorsports, the latter making its series return after a several-year hiatus.

ST’S BATTLE OF CAYMANS VS. EVERYONE ELSE

In the 20-car ST class field, nine of the cars are Porsche Caymans, including defending class champions Spencer Pumpelly and Nick Galante in the No. 17 RS1 Porsche Cayman.

The remainder of the class features the usual fleet of three Mazda MX-5s from Freedom Autosport, three MINI JCWs from Luis Perocarpi’s LAP Motorsports, Bimmerworld’s pair of aging but venerable 3-series BMWs, the CRG-I Do Borrow Nissan Altima, C360R Audi S3 and JDC-Miller Motorsports BMW 228i.

The field is easier to predict here, with RS1, Freedom, Murillo Racing, CRG-I Do Borrow and perhaps the MINIs entering the race-winning equation.

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

24 Hours of Le Mans
JEAN-FRANCOIS MONIER/AFP via Getty Images
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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.