Dilemma of how to fill Bourdais’ post-Indy, Le Mans seats now exists

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INDIANAPOLIS – The awkward but inevitable next step that came Sunday, after Saturday’s accident in qualifying for Sebastien Bourdais, is how do the two teams he drives for move forward with filling their seats in the Verizon IndyCar Series and at the 24 Hours of Le Mans.

With multiple pelvic fractures and a fractured right hip, Bourdais’ recovery time is expected to be at least a couple months, and that presents unintended opportunities at Dale Coyne Racing and Ford Chip Ganassi Racing in the weeks and months to come.

That being said, Bourdais already seemed in upbeat spirits, in a statement released Sunday.

“I want to thank everybody for the support and the messages, quite a few drivers have already dropped by,” Bourdais said. “It’s going to take time, but I’m feeling pretty good since the surgery. I’ll be back at some point. Just don’t know when yet!”

INDYCAR: It’s a Davison encore, then back to good ‘ol TBA

BOWMANVILLE, ON – JULY 13: James Davison is shown on the grid before the Mobil 1 SportsCar Grand Prix at Canadian Tire Mosport Park on July 13, 2014 in Bowmanville, Ontario, Canada. (Photo by Brian Cleary/Getty Images)

On Sunday, James Davison was confirmed as Bourdais’ replacement in the No. 18 Honda for the Indianapolis 500, a move which raised some eyebrows in the paddock, but does make sense from a continuity standpoint within the Coyne team.

This is Davison’s third experience with Coyne, having made his IndyCar debut with the team in a handful of races in 2013, and then again jumping in for the 2015 Indianapolis 500.

At the latter event, he proved he could get up to speed quickly in practice, and was moving forward in the race before contact occurred – bizarrely – with another one-off teammate in Tristan Vautier.

Known for his innate speed and his ability to go all-out – Australian countryman Will Power rates Davison highly – Davison has the potential to bring the car from the back of the field forward to a potential top-15 result. Working with engineers Craig Hampson and Olivier Boisson, the latter of whom was an engineer at KV Racing Technology when Davison was a rookie in 2014 as he finished an Indianapolis 500-best 16th place, will also aid his progress and his confidence.

With the Dale Coyne Racing team having built up the backup car and completed a seat fit by late Sunday night, Davison is expected to have his first running on Monday’s practice.

Davison will get through the Indianapolis 500 but then Coyne is, unfortunately, back to the long-running joke of a “TBA situation” from Detroit onwards.

Davison is experienced at Detroit in sports cars, where he’s podiumed before. But he hasn’t ever driven a street course race in IndyCar and his only two road course races were before the manufacturer aero kit introduction, at Mid-Ohio and Sonoma in 2013, also with Coyne.

With a number of hungry young drivers and experienced team veterans to choose from, Coyne will no doubt be busy figuring out the best possible solution from there. It would not be a surprise if Coyne continued down the path of using some drivers he’s worked with before, given the opportunity.

LE MANS: Options wide in some respects, limited in others

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)

The sports car situation for Le Mans, in figuring out Bourdais’ replacement, is a bit more complex – owing to a lack of drivers who have Ford GT experience, or lack Le Mans experience, or some combination of both.

Chip Ganassi Racing managing director Mike Hull told NBC Sports on Sunday in Indianapolis before qualifying it was important to “let the dust settle” following Bourdais’ accident when it comes to discussing the Le Mans open seat, which is a salient point.

Hull and the CGR IndyCar team are locked in on trying to win the Indianapolis 500 first, with the four-car entry here. It’s not that Le Mans is secondary – the team has a victory to defend – but there, the two U.S.-based entries are the extras that join the two primary FIA World Endurance Championship entries.

It’s a shame that Bourdais will not be able to join his stablemates, Joey Hand and Dirk Mueller, in defending their GTE-Pro class victory in the No. 68 Ford GT. It does leave open a rare seat in the winning chariot from 2016, though, with a decision probably set to come within “the days ahead” per Ford Performance Global Director Dave Pericak, to Sportscar365.

The only three drivers available with Ford GT experience are Marino Franchitti, Tony Kanaan and Scott Maxwell.

Franchitti’s last start with the program came at Circuit of The Americas last year, with third driver Harry Tincknell moving into a full-season role the final few races of last year driving alongside Andy Priaulx.

Kanaan has car experience – he made his Ford GT debut at this year’s Rolex 24 at Daytona – but he’d be in the same dilemma Scott Dixon was last year, where he’d miss the Le Mans Test Day on June 4 owing to his IndyCar commitments at Detroit. Rookies at Le Mans have to go through a simulator process as well, so if Kanaan were to be the choice, he’d have to undertake that process barring an unexpected shift or waiver granted.

Maxwell, meanwhile, was an integral part of the Multimatic and Ford development process but has never actually raced the car. He has Le Mans experience, and a 2000 class win in LMP675, but the likable and talented Canadian’s five starts came between 2000 and 2006.

Outside those with Ford GT experience, there’s some intriguing names who could work.

In terms of ready-made plug-and-play solutions, IMSA Prototype drivers Ryan Dalziel, Johannes van Overbeek, Marc Goossens and Jonathan Bomarito have GT class experience at Le Mans. Joao Barbosa or Dane Cameron could be intriguing options – Barbosa is vastly experienced while Cameron would be a rookie – but owing to the fact they race Cadillacs in IMSA, it’s highly unlikely GM would release either to drive for the Blue Oval, even on a one-off. Dalziel has a versatile Le Mans CV in five starts, where he’s raced and won in LMP2 and also raced in GT twice.

In the GT Daytona classes, other veterans with Le Mans experience include Scott Pruett, Bryan Sellers, Gunnar Jeannette, Colin Braun and Jeff Segal. Segal won Le Mans in a mid-engined, normally aspirated Ferrari 458 Italia last year (the new 488 model, which Segal’s co-drivers Townsend Bell and Bill Sweedler are in, is a turbocharged one), and as he drives for Ganassi’s manufacturer partner in IndyCar – Honda (via Acura) – so he could be a viable option too. Braun, a CORE autosport Porsche driver now, has Ford experience from his NASCAR days and also via speed runs at Daytona in a Daytona Prototype. He’s currently scheduled to race GRC Lites in Canada that weekend with CORE.

And then there is a crazy, hypothetical situation that came to mind where Hand and Mueller have an old teammate they know well from their old manufacturer, BMW, who has a bunch of Le Mans experience and a similar partner in IHG Rewards Club: Bill Auberlen. Could BMW release Auberlen to Ford, “get the band back together” for one last hurrah, and see the still crazy fast, veteran Californian saddle up to ride with an American manufacturer? Especially as Auberlen could be in the frame for BMW’s 2018 Le Mans lineup on his own, and thus have only one more shot to reunite? This option is a remote one, but it is fascinating to ponder.

Bourdais’ injury is unfortunate for one of the most talented drivers competing in both the open-wheel and sports car worlds, but it does provide one or more drivers with shots in top-level equipment to star from here on out the rest of the 2017 season.

Jenson Button joins NASCAR Garage 56 at Le Mans with Jimmie Johnson, Rockenfeller

Jenson Button NASCAR Le Mans
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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – The NASCAR Garage 56 entry in the 24 Hours of Le Mans will be driven by champions of three major-league series — Jenson Button, Jimmie Johnson and Mike Rockenfeller.

The lineup of the Hendrick Motorsports-prepared Next Gen Camaro was announced Saturday before the Rolex 24 at Daytona.

NASCAR’s Garage 56 project was announced in March 2022 as a joint effort by NASCAR, Hendrick Motorsports, Chevrolet and Goodyear. It marks the return of a NASCAR team to Le Mans for the first time in nearly 50 years with Hendrick fielding a Camaro ZL1 as the “Garage 56” entry in the 100th edition of the sports car classic.

It’s long been expected the car would include Johnson, the seven-time Cup Series champion who is returning to NASCAR’s premier series as a driver-owner in 2023. Rockenfeller, the 2013 DTM champion and 2010 Le Mans overall winner, has attended every NASCAR Garage 56 test since last year while racking up simulator testing hours.

The surprise was Button, the 2009 Formula One champion who has become a popular commentator. Rick Hendrick initially said wanted four-time Cup champion and current Hendrick Motorsports COO Jeff Gordon to drive the car, and Gordon had raced a sports car at Indianapolis last year to test his race shape.

GARAGE 56 ANSWERS, ANALYSISMore on the NASCAR-Hendrick entry for the 24 Hours of Le Mans

“Since the beginning of the Garage 56 project, it has been our goal to partner with the top racers in the world to represent us in Le Mans,” NASCAR chairman and CEO Jim France said in a release. “The lineup of Jimmie, ‘Rocky’ and Jenson is everything we could have dreamed of – three elite drivers who have won at the highest levels of motorsports worldwide. As we celebrate the 75th anniversary of NASCAR, we are honored to have these world-class champions help bring the sights and sounds of a NASCAR race car to fans in Le Mans, and across the world.”

Button had one of the most prolific careers in F1 history finishing with 15 wins and 50 podiums on top of his 2009 World Championship and is widely considered one of the top British drivers of all time.

“As a lifelong racing fan, I have always dreamed of racing certain cars, with and against certain drivers and competing in certain events,” Button said in a release. “In June, a number of those dreams will come true in one event when I get to bring NASCAR to the world stage alongside my pals Jimmie and ‘Rocky’ for the 100th anniversary of the most prestigious race in the world. I’m really looking forward to sharing this journey with NASCAR, Hendrick Motorsports, Chevrolet and Goodyear, and current and future NASCAR fans from around the world.”

Johnson will make his 24 Hours of Le Mans debut a year after starting his first Indy 500. He has 83 victories in the Cup Series, where he will return for the Daytona 500 next month with his Legacy Motor Club team.

He also has been involved with testing the Garage 56 Camaro.

“I’m super thrilled – it’s been at the top of my bucket list to compete in the 24 Hours of Le Mans someday,” Johnson said. “To have this opportunity come – and to partner with everybody and this driver lineup – is truly an incredible opportunity and one that I am thankful to be a part of.”

Rockenfeller teamed with Johnson on the No. 48 Ally Cadillac in the Rolex 24 at Daytona in 2021-22. The German driver has been the lead test driver for Garage 56 and has driven during every on-track test.

“It has been a great journey so far with the whole team and project,” Rockenfeller said. “To be involved as a driver from day one until now was already a great honor, and to now have Jimmie and Jenson alongside me as teammates in Le Mans is unbelievable.”

The car will continue testing with all three drivers next week at the Daytona International Speedway road course. Rolex 24 and four-time IMSA champion Jordan Taylor, who drives for Corvette Racing, will be the team’s backup driver and coach. Taylor also won the GTE Pro class in 2015 at Le Mans, where he has four podium finishes.

The project also is being supported by IMSA GTP team Action Express, whose general manager is former NASCAR executive and Daytona 500-winning crew chief Gary Nelson. Action Express built the first test car for the Garage 56 but since has handed off the project to Hendrick, where it’s being over seen by vice president of competition Chad Knaus (the crew chief for Johnson’s seven championships).

“Action Express got it going and built the mule car, and then Hendrick joined the program, took it from where we had it, and they’re doing a major percentage of the work,” Nelson told NBC Sports. “We just did a test a couple months ago on a wet track. We’ve done a couple of other tests as they were ramping their program up. Now their car is good, tested and running. We’re still involved and here to help. The Hendrick guys have taken the reins, and Rick Hendrick and Chad Knaus are a thrill to work with and doing a much better job. It’s more NASCAR than prototype racing.”