Three Toyotas lead the field. Photo: Toyota

Le Mans 24: 2017 LMP1 Preview

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While the LMP1 class may be short on numbers heading into this year’s 24 Hours of Le Mans, the fight for overall honors at the Circuit de la Sarthe is bound to remain as fierce as ever.

ENTRY LIST

Following the withdrawal of Audi at the end of last season and Rebellion Racing’s decision to step down to LMP2, this year’s LMP1 field will feature just six cars – down from nine in 2016, and 14 in 2015 – all of which race full-time in the FIA World Endurance Championship.

As the post-Audi era begins at Le Mans, Porsche and Toyota are poised to continue their close battle for supremacy through the early part of the WEC season, with the latter appearing to hold the upper hand after the test day.

Toyota stormed to a 1-2-3 sweep of the timesheets on June 4 at the Circuit de la Sarthe, its trio of TS050 Hybrids mustering up laps that Porsche simply could not live with. While it is only a test day and the true colors of both manufacturers are yet to come to light, it could nevertheless prove to be an indication of things to come.

Top honors within Toyota went to Kamui Kobayashi in the No. 7 entry, with his time of 3:18.132 already dipping below the pole lap from last year despite efforts to slow the LMP1 field down.

In the sister No. 8 car, Sebastien Buemi finished 1.1 seconds off Kobayashi’s pace, while Le Mans rookie Jose Maria Lopez completed the test day sweep for Toyota in third. Earl Bamber was Porsche’s fastest man in fourth, with defending Le Mans winner Neel Jani taking fifth.

Toyota may be the early favorite at Le Mans, yet with the heartbreak of last year’s race still fresh in the mind for all at the team, all will know that nothing is certain until the checkered flag has been taken.

THREE-PIECE TOYOTA OUT TO AVENGE GHOSTS OF 2016

NORTHAMPTON, ENGLAND – APRIL 15: The Toyota Gazoo Racing TS050 Hybrid of Sebastien Buemi, Anthony Davidson and Kazuki Nakajima drives during practice for the FIA World Endurance Championship at Silverstone on April 15, 2017 in Northampton, England. (Photo by Ker Robertson/Getty Images)

Undeterred by its last lap defeat in 2016, Toyota Gazoo Racing has put a great deal of focus on its plans for Le Mans, opting to field a third LMP1 car for the first time since joining the category.

Third cars last ran in LMP1 at Le Mans back in 2015 when Audi and Porsche added an entry for the 24 hours, the latter’s wildcard No. 19 919 Hybrid ultimately taking a famous victory. The companies agreed for 2016 not to run third cars in a bid to cut costs following the Volkswagen emissions scandal.

Toyota will bring back the tradition this week with its No. 9 car that made its bow at Spa last month. Shared by Lopez – swapped into the line-up from the No. 7 due to his inexperience and recent injury – Japanese Super Formula champion Yuji Kunimoto and defending LMP2 Le Mans winner Nicolas Lapierre, the car will give Toyota a numbers advantage that, while being far from decisive, could prove important.

Few figures within the Le Mans paddock would begrudge a Toyota victory following last year’s heartache. The TS050 Hybrid has looked strong and reliable through the early part of the WEC season, taking two victories from two races and a one-two at Spa.

Porsche may have more to come at Le Mans, but for now, the smart money would be on Toyota to finally break its duck and take its maiden overall victory as a manufacturer at the Circuit de la Sarthe.

CAN PORSCHE’S FIVE-STAR LINE-UP FIGHT BACK?

NORTHAMPTON, ENGLAND – APRIL 14: The Porsche LMP Team 919 Hybrid of Neel Jani, Andre Lotterer and Nick Tandy drives during practice for the FIA World Endurance Championship at Silverstone on April 14, 2017 in Northampton, England. (Photo by Ker Robertson/Getty Images)

Porsche heads into this year’s 24 Hours of Le Mans with what is arguably the most experienced and successful driver line-up on the grid. The re-jig that saw 2016 Le Mans winners Marc Lieb and Romain Dumas get relocated within its motorsport family (plus the retirement of Mark Webber) freed up space for Audi refugee Andre Lotterer and 2015 victors Earl Bamber and Nick Tandy in its full-season line-up.

Add in Jani (2016 winner with Lieb and Dumas) and Timo Bernhard (2010 winner with Audi), and you get to five Le Mans victors in a line-up of six. The exception is Brendon Hartley, who finished second in 2015.

Toyota may have enjoyed the upper hand through the early part of the season, but that is not to say Porsche has not been a force. The team made clever strategy work to get in the mix at the front at both Silverstone and Spa, and as we saw with Toyota last year, outright pace isn’t everything when it comes to Le Mans.

With Audi no longer on the grid, Porsche is left to fight alone for the Volkswagen Group’s pride at Le Mans. Its brands have won all but one 24-hour since the turn of the millennium (2009 being the break when Peugeot was victorious). Continuing that record and taking a third straight overall victory would be significant; perhaps even more poignant (or neat for the numbers fans out there) would be a 19th overall win claimed in a 919.

LIFE AFTER AUDI BEGINS AT LE MANS

LE MANS, FRANCE – JUNE 15: Winners of the Le Mans 24 Hour 2014, Audi Sport Team Joest, Audi R18 E-Tron Quattro of Marcel Fassler, André Lotterer and Benoit Treluyer cross the line with 2nd place , Audi Sport Team Joest, Audi R18 E-Tron Quattro of Lucas Di Grassi, Loic Duval, Tom Kristensen on June 15, 2014 in Le Mans, France. (Photo by Andrew Hone/Getty Images)

Audi and Le Mans have been synonymous with one another since 2000. My colleague Tony DiZinno penned an excellent column following the withdrawal announcement at the end of last year about how Audi made Le Mans cool again – and it’s true. Audi and Le Mans went hand-in-hand.

The WEC paddock has felt a bit emptier this year because of Audi’s absence, and the same will likely be true at Le Mans. To not have the likes of Dr. Wolfgang Ullrich and Leena Gade (who admittedly had already left Audi prior to its own WEC exit) decked out in Audi colors in the garage and pit lane will be strange.

The majority of the Audi drivers will still be around, though. Lotterer is the only one who has stayed in LMP1, joining Porsche; Marcel Fassler has a seat with Corvette in GTE-Pro; Lucas di Grassi is also in a GT, racing a Ferrari for AF Corse; Oliver Jarvis is in LMP2 with Jackie Chan DC Racing. The only members of the 2016 cast missing are Benoit Treluyer and Loic Duval.

Motorsport, like life, goes on. There is still a Le Mans without Audi. And we’ve got two heavyweights in the form of Porsche and Toyota ready to duel for top honors.

AND WHAT OF BYKOLLES?

NORTHAMPTON, ENGLAND – APRIL 14: The Bykolles Racing Ream car of Oliver Webb, James Rossiter and Dominik Kraihamer drives during practice for the FIA World Endurance Championship at Silverstone on April 14, 2017 in Northampton, England. (Photo by Ker Robertson/Getty Images)

Don’t go thinking that LMP1 only comprises Toyota and Porsche. After Rebellion’s decision to step down to LMP2, the ByKolles team is going it alone for the LMP1 privateers, with its ENSO CLM P1/01 NISMO car set to be shared by Oliver Webb, Dominik Kraihamer and Marco Bonanomi.

Being in what is effectively a one-car race, the ByKolles team’s expectations will be chiefly internal. A solid result would be getting to the finish without too many major dramas, and if the team can stay ahead of the LMP2 field as it did at Spa last month, that would be a solid achievement.

Otherwise, the privateer side of LMP1 is more a case of looking to next year, when increased numbers are expected. Ginetta, Perrin and BR Engineering are all working on chassis for customers to buy, and a few established teams have been linked with making the jump up. More details will hopefully come out across the course of Le Mans.

PREDICTION: TOYOTA TO WIN, BUT WHICH CAR?

SPA, BELGIUM – MAY 6: (EDITORIAL USE ONLY) In this handout image provided by Red Bull, Toyota LMP1 crew celebrate in the pit lane during the 6 Hours of Spa-Francorchamps, the second round of the 2017 FIA World Endurance Championship’s at Spa-Francorchamps Circuit on May 6, 2017 in Spa, Belgium. (Photo by Dean Treml/Red Bull via Getty Images)

Toyota is probably going to be the neutral’s pick for victory given the events of last year, but even putting that aside, the Japanese marque has looked really strong so far this season. It proved last year it has the strategy nous to succeed at La Sarthe, so I’m going to put my money on a first overall victory for Toyota this weekend.

But which car?

It’s really a toss-up between the No. 7 and No. 8. The No. 9 has strong drivers in it, but the lack of Le Mans – and, frankly, general endurance racing – experience makes it a real wildcard. So which of the full-season Toyotas will get the job done?

The No. 7 was the car to beat at Spa, even if it finished second after being, to quote Mike Conway, “screwed” twice by full course yellows. But I think if the No. 8 crew can work out why it lacked the pace there and get things turned around for Le Mans, then we’ll see last year’s ’23 hours and 59 minutes of Le Mans’ victors Anthony Davidson, Kazuki Nakajima and Sebastien Buemi finally – and deservedly – take a maiden 24 hour victory.

12 months on, it would be the perfect narrative.

But when has Le Mans ever cared for that?

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)

INDYCAR: what drivers said after Pocono

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Here’s what drivers said after Sunday’s 14th race on the 2019 NTT IndyCar Series schedule – the ABC Supply 500 at Pocono Raceway:

WILL POWER (No. 12 Verizon Team Penske Chevrolet) – WINNER: “I had a few issues during the race but we just kept coming back. Full credit to the team. We had a great car and we just kind of hung there and saved fuel and when it was time to go, I went. I was so determined and I really wanted to win. This is my 13th year in a row of winning races and I have been thinking about that. I just wanted to win a race for Verizon and these guys who have worked their butts off all year and just haven’t had the results.”

SCOTT DIXON (No. 9 PNC Bank Chip Ganassi Racing Honda) – finished second: “Definitely gets exciting in that situation. We definitely had some luck. Today the car went through some good changes. The car was pretty quick.  Not sure really what happened on the last stint there. We put more front wing in there, more pressure on the right rear tire. Couldn’t turn the car. We were running 213, 214 (mph), struggling to do 208. So much understeer. Will was definitely extremely strong today. It was good to see him get another victory this season. Had we gone back out, even with headlights on, I think Will was going to take the race. Congrats to him and Team Penske. We’ll keep our head down and see what we can come up with for the last three races.”

SIMON PAGENAUD (No. 22 Penske Truck Rental Chevrolet) – finished third: “Well, it’s a great day. Very happy for Will and Team Penske to get another win here in Pocono. It’s pretty awesome. I think we showed our cars were the strongest today. Overall it’s a pretty good points day for us on the 22 car this weekend. Obviously, yes, I did think we could have done a little better. At least we would have tried. I think we had the car to do so… Who knows what would have happened, but I think we could have challenged at least. At the end of the day it’s not a bad day. We’ll take it. Go to the next one, keep pushing.”

SANTINO FERRUCCI (No. 19 Cly-Del Manufacturing Honda) – finished fourth: “This weekend has been pretty amazing to have over 120 people here, from family and friends to sponsors and to race in front of such a large crowd. Hats off to the whole team, we rolled the car off the trailer and it was fast. I’d say that’s a job well-done and homework well-researched. The No. 19 Cly-Del Manufacturing Honda was on rails. I think we definitely had a top three in us and we were fighting for a chance to win the race at one point. Obviously with the conditions and everything, I’m still happy to bring home a top-five. It makes a huge difference in the rookie championship and moves us up to 12th overall. With three races to go and one more oval, we’ll see how much further we can move up.”

JOSEF NEWGARDEN (No. 2 Hitachi Team Penske Chevrolet) – finished fifth: “It was kind of an interesting day, but it could have been worse. It was sort of like qualifying yesterday where qualifying got rained out but we started on the pole. We didn’t finish this race but we finished fifth. We’ll take it. I wish we could have been a little bit higher, but I think Will (Power) was going to be tough to beat today. He looked very strong. Certainly towards the middle of the race I thought he was looking very good. We fought with what we had today and I thought the Hitachi Chevy was pretty good. Coming out of here with a decent finish allows us to now focus on the last three events. We just need to set our sights on Gateway next weekend and execute. I think we will have a good car. I always feel confident with Team Penske, and Team Chevy has been pushing hard, so I’m looking forward to it.”

ED CARPENTER (No. 20 SONAX Chevrolet) – finished sixth: “We needed a decent run. We DNF’ed at Iowa, which wasn’t good. I feel like we have been performing better this year, we just haven’t really been able to put it together. It was nice to be in the mix, racing with the guys you need to race with to be up there fighting for wins. I wish we could have seen out all 500 miles, but Pocono always has its own craziness when it comes to the weather. Hopefully, all of the fans got to their cars before they got too wet. I thought it was a really good turnout today, it was a fun race while we were out there. It was unfortunate to see guys kind of lose their minds a bit there at the start, but all in all it was a fun day and nice to be moving forward.”

SEBASTIEN BOURDAIS (No. 18 SealMaster Honda) – finished seventh: “It was a strong run for the No. 18 SealMaster Honda. We were quick and I got up to fourth at one point. I think we deserved that position. It was kind of a broken up race and unfortunately, on the last restart, the guys in front of me checked up and I got swallowed up and lost four positions. I got one position back, then the race was stopped because of the weather. I think if the race continued we would have finished better than seventh, but that’s racing.”

TONY KANAAN (No. 14 ABC Supply AJ Foyt Racing Chevrolet) – finished eighth: “Good day for us, another top 10. We have a few things to improve still but we’ll take it from where we started. We had a competitive car all weekend. The goal was to finish in the top 10 and we finished eighth, which is my best result of the year. It’s a good energy boost for the boys.”

GRAHAM RAHAL (No. 15 TOTAL Honda) – finished ninth: “We need a little more pace. We were a little slow on the straights for some reason, but we’ll keep digging into it. I had a bad restart (went from fifth to ninth), but it wasn’t that bad actually. I was pulling up on the guys in front of me, but I just got driven around and was in a position where I was a little bit of a sitting duck and lost a bunch of spots and that killed our race from then-on, frankly. We were scrambling just to get ourselves back in position. I had another good restart later and went from 13th to ninth and made some of those spots back up.”

CHARLIE KIMBALL (No. 23 Tresiba Carlin Chevrolet) – finished 10th: “First and foremost, I’m glad that everyone is OK from the incidents on track today. Secondly, I’m just really proud of this Carlin crew. We made great progress with the No. 23 Tresiba Chevrolet in superspeedway trim and we learned a lot after coming here last year. The racing at Pocono Raceway is really tough, but these guys just kept their head down and made it happen. I made a mistake in the first pit stop, but we were able to run our strategy and get a really good run going. To come away with a top-10 finish from a very challenging weekend where we didn’t get to qualify is really a credit to the entire Carlin team. It was really great to get that top-10 finish in front of all of our Novo Nordisk guests who made the trip out to the track to support us and also to round out the top 10 with a bowtie for Team Chevy.”

CONOR DALY (No. 59 Gallagher Carlin Chevrolet): – finished 11th “After where we started at the back of the field, to finish 11th is awesome. It’s unfortunate though, because we were really just starting to get to the point where I was happier with the No. 59 Gallagher Carlin Chevrolet. The last few laps before the final red flag, we were the fastest car on the track, so we were definitely moving in the right direction. We were catching all of the people in front of us and starting to get to where we needed to be, but these 500-mile races are long and the goal is to be strong at the end, which I really felt like we were working toward that for sure. To be 11th is really good and it’s another strong finish for this group of people here at Carlin. Hopefully we can keep this momentum going into Gateway and that’ll be even more fun.”

MARCUS ERICSSON (No. 7 Arrow Schmidt Peterson Motorsports Honda) – finished 12th: “It was a tough race. I thought I had some really good starts and restarts; we made up positions there. Unfortunately, throughout the race we were struggling a bit with the balance of the car throughout the stints, so I was struggling to keep up with the pace with the guys ahead or behind us. I thought at one point there after the second restart and we were up to P5, the day was looking to potentially be really good. Just a tough race trying to hang on and make the best of it. We learned a lot and the Arrow SPM guys did a great job with stops, but disappointed we didn’t have a better result than that.”

ZACH VEACH (No. 26 Gainbridge Honda) – finished 13th: “Thirteenth obviously isn’t where we wanted to finish – but all things aside, it was an OK day for us. Just lacking overall grip, I think as a team, but we moved forward from our starting spot – which with qualifying being canceled hurt us. I’m thankful for all the work the guys did. Honestly, walking away 13th isn’t what we want, but we did all we could and I’m proud of that. We’ll go to Gateway and have a better result.”

MATHEUS LEIST (No. 4 ABC Supply AJ Foyt Racing Chevrolet) – finished 14th: “The car was good. The stops were perfect and I think we had a good strategy. We went a lap down cause we had too much vibration in one of our tires, so we had to stop early and that was it from there.”

MARCO ANDRETTI (No. 98 US Concrete / Curb Honda) – finished 15th: “Mainly, I’m just glad everyone walked out OK after the wreck on the start. I had an issue with one of my head pads coming out and we lost some time fixing that. Beyond that, the car had a big imbalance and by the time we got that resolved, we were a lap down. There wasn’t much we could do, and it made for a long day. Looking ahead to Gateway and working to finish the season strong.”

COLTON HERTA (No. 88 Capstone Turbine Honda) – finished 16th: “The No. 88 Capstone Turbine Honda guys gave me a great car for the ABC Supply 500, I think we had one of the better cars on track today and definitely a better car than where we finished. It’s unfortunate that we got into the wall there. It’s very disappointing. I know we’ll be able to rebound next week at Gateway. I really like racing there and I’m excited to compete under the lights.”

SPENCER PIGOT (No. 21 Autogeek Chevrolet) – finished 17th: “That was a frustrating end to the day, we hit a bump in Turn 1 and it caused something to break on the front of the car. From then on, I was just a passenger and went straight up into the wall. I had no steering at that point, unfortunately. We were running pretty comfortably there in seventh and the car was feeling pretty good. We had lost touch with the group in front but I felt like we had a solid car. I feel bad for everyone at Ed Carpenter Racing, we have a race again next weekend and now there is a lot of extra work to do.”

ALEXANDER ROSSI (No. 27 MilitaryToMotorsports.com Honda) – finished 18th: “Obviously, I didn’t get a good start – so that’s on me. But we were three-wide; Ryan was on the inside, I was in the middle and Takuma was on the outside. I can’t even begin to understand how after last year Takuma thinks that any sort of driving like that is acceptable. To turn across two cars, at that speed, in that corner at a 500-mile race is disgraceful, upsetting and may have cost us a championship. It’s upsetting. This team works too hard to have something like that happen. The whole team worked tirelessly to get the 27 car back on track. Once we got out there, the car just didn’t have the handling we needed so we held on to make up as many points as we could. Unfortunately, the weather came, and the race was called one lap before we could gain another spot. We have a couple days to rebound and go for race wins now – that’s all that matters.”

RYAN HUNTER-REAY (No. 28 DHL Honda) – finished 19th: “The opening lap wreck was ridiculous and thank God everybody was alright. It’s so unfortunate at the beginning of a 500-mile race. The car was good yesterday and we just needed to put together 500 clean miles. The DHL car deserved to be fighting for a win today. We did all we could do after coming back out. The guys did a great job; unbelievable effort in getting the car turned back around. But we were really loose in (Turn) 3, and it turned out we had holes in the underwing from the crash. The last thing we want to do is be a risk out there and damage more equipment, so we got the points we could and came in just before the weather hit.”

JAMES HINCHCLIFFE (No. 5 Arrow Schmidt Peterson Motorsports Honda) – finished 20th: “It unfolded in front of us. We had a pretty good start with the No. 5 Arrow car. We were heading into Turn 2 kind of three-wide, and I knew that wasn’t a good idea, so I backed out. I thought I was actually gonna save us because it happened in front of me. I couldn’t see exactly what started it, but then the wreck sorta moved down to the inside… I was able to slow down, but it just slid out to where I was. There was nowhere I could go. It sucks. I mean it wasn’t too hard a hit, so glad everybody is ok. It’s a 500-mile race, I don’t know how many times we have to do this before people figure out that you can attack all you want, but it doesn’t give you a chance to win if you are in the fence.”

TAKUMA SATO (No. 30 Mi-Jack / Panasonic Honda) – finished 21st: “First of all, I am worried about Felix. Hopefully he is OK. I am sorry for all the guys fighting for the championship. Ryan and I were obviously racing at the exit of Turn 1 and it looks like Alexander had a slow start. We both went right and left (of Rossi) and I thought it was all clear. All the (track) seams also are putting the car really easy to get the lane change and everybody gets close. Unfortunately, it looks like we made contact for that.”

FELIX ROSENQVIST (No. 10 NTT Data Ganassi Racing Honda) – finished 22nd: “First of all, it’s good to see that I’m cleared from the medical checks. Just with minor back pain and some headache. Hopefully I should be back to normal in a couple of days. A big thanks to the INDYCAR track staff and medical staff, did an awesome job looking after everything. Luckily the other drivers are OK as well, I think that’s the main thing. A shame that we were caught out already on lap one. I think we had a good car today. Good to see Scott being up there all day. Good points for him, probably throwing him up there in the championship hunt. Looking forward to get back in the car in Gateway.”

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