Rayhall and Falb win at Le Mans. Photo: United Autosports

Rayhall: A special, dream win on debut at Le Mans!

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Editor’s note: Sean Rayhall, one of America’s rising driving talents, will file a series of blogs throughout the year chronicling his season in the European Le Mans Series, co-driving with John Falb at Zak Brown and Richard Dean’s United Autosports team in its Ligier JS P3 Nissan. His second blog looks at the team’s voyage to the Michelin Le Mans Cup Road to Le Mans race, which sees LMP3 and GT3 cars tackle the Circuit de la Sarthe. His first blog after Silverstone is linked here.  

So I don’t think many drivers have weeks like these their first time at Le Mans! Anyway, I’ll attempt to recap.

I arrived in Le Mans by myself Tuesday because John (Falb) had a later flight and did the European train thing to get to the hotel. Well to be honest, it wasn’t really a hotel; it was a castle. So I did a bit of running around the castle to get rid of jet lag, and had a nice dinner with our United Autosports team.

Photo courtesy Sean Rayhall

The next day, Wednesday, was very long. Our first practice session was at 8:30 p.m., and that didn’t go exactly as planned. The first lap I bed in the brakes, but the second lap we had an engine failure coming out of Tertre Rouge. Our run plan was for me to do the entire first session and John to do the second, so this meant I was going to have no laps before qualifying to learn it or dial in the car. But it worked out despite this minor setback; I ended up qualifying sixth in the first session, and John qualified second in the Bronze session, which was absolutely remarkable.

I had a lot of faith in United Autosports being able to get us on the podium after working all night and not even getting to go back to the hotel for a shower, I really wanted to make something happen for the guys.

Thursday was our first of two roughly one-hour races, with the second race on Saturday morning before the 24-hour race. In race one, John had a great stint, which put me in a good position leaving the pits in fourth place. From there I was able to pass the for the lead by the end of the second lap of my stint and make a gap.

Photo: United Autosports

When our guys came over the radio and said I was leading, I could not believe it. It was like Indy Lights at the Indy GP all over again (Editor’s note; Rayhall won race two at IMS with 8Star Motorsports in 2015) and everything got really quiet in the car and I just went to work for the rest of the stint to win the race.

Winning in Europe is one thing, but winning at Le Mans is another… and at that moment it hit me once I got on the victory podium.

Photo: United Autosports

Hearing the U.S. national anthem and having the American flag fly above us was very surreal. I still can’t really wrap my finger around what exactly I felt that day, but I can tell you it was special.

For race two, John once again opened for us with another fantastic stint before we got blocked in the pits while we tried to leave. That cost us 10-12 seconds in total, in which track position wise kept us from being able to fight with the Norma. So after pushing as hard as I could, we ended up second in race two.

It is the first time I’ve truly been happy with second, because the way the BOP was, we were about 10 kph down on the straightway compared to the Norma, one of the other LMP3 chassis. For us, in reality, it felt like a win because with all of Le Mans’ long straights, it’s impossible to catch a car that has that much more top speed.

I have to thank United Autosports for their work this week, staying at the track all night with zero sleep and getting us a car to win after that is just special. Also John Falb drove flawlessly, by far the best drive of his entire life the whole weekend. Thanks to Sports Insure, AERO Paint, Ligier UK, and Oreca gear for giving us the chance to do this!

Oh yeah, and you can imagine the night we had after. I don’t think the celebration on the podium really gives you the full effect of the fun we had the next few nights!

I’ll check in again soon. Thanks for reading!

Photo: United Autosports

F1 Preview – 2018 French Grand Prix

Photo: Getty Images
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It’s hard to believe that the French Grand Prix, the oldest grand prix event on the planet, as it dates back to June of 1906, was ever removed from the Formula 1 calendar.

Alas, not since 2008 at Magny-Cours has Formula 1 held a race on French soil. Yet, that all changes this weekend, as Formula 1 visits the Circuit Paul Ricard for its first French race in a decade.

Formula 1 teams are not strangers to Paul Ricard. It has been a popular testing facility for years, as evidenced by the below photo from 2016, featuring Sebastian Vettel and Ferrari in a wet tire test.

LE CASTELLET, FRANCE – JANUARY 26: Sebastian Vettel of Germany and Scuderia Ferrari drives during wet weather tire testing at Circuit Paul Ricard on January 26, 2016 in Le Castellet, France. (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)

However, in terms of racing, Paul Ricard has also been absent from the calendar for quite a long time – the last time Formula 1 race at Paul Ricard was in 1990. Alain Prost won for Ferrari that day.

1990: Alain Prost of France punches the air in celebration after passing the chequered flag in his Scuderia Ferrari to win the French Grand Prix at the Paul Ricard circuit in Le Beausset, France. Mandatory Credit: Pascal Rondeau/Allsport

As such, despite being a known quantity as a testing facility, how a race weekend will shake out is anybody’s guess.

And what’s more, it marks the beginning of three consecutive race weekends – The French Grand Prix, The Austrian Grand Prix, and The British Grand Prix – which F1 teams and drivers are calling “the triple header.”

Talking points ahead of the French Grand Prix are below.

A Journey Into the Unknown?

Like all new venues, or resurrected and refurbished ones in this case, the Circuit Paul Ricard represents somewhat of an unknown, as there’s no available race data to make predictions off of.

And the 3.61-mile, 15-turn track itself represents a range of challenges. It has fast corners, like Turns 1 and 2 (S de la Verrerie), a technical section between Turns 3 and 7 (Virage de l’Hotel through the Mistral Straight Start), and a 1.1-mile straightaway in the Mistral Straight, though it is separated by a chicane (Turns 8 and 9).

Mercedes team principal Toto Wolff discussed the challenge of the circuit, highlighting the lack of data to build off of as well the tough three-race stretch ahead as especially challenging, in a preview on Formula 1’s website.

“France should be an interesting race. We don’t often get to race on a track where we have little to no historical data. It makes preparing for the weekend a bit trickier than usual, but that element of the unknown also adds to the challenge. The French Grand Prix marks the first race of the triple header, which will test all F1 teams to their limits, but also offers the chance to score a lot of points over the course of three weeks – which is precisely what we’re setting out to do,” said Wolff.

That element of the unknown makes Paul Ricard one of the biggest wildcards on the 2018 F1 calendar, and a championship shake up could be in the cards as a result.

Ferrari, Mercedes Continue Their Back and Forth

MELBOURNE, AUSTRALIA – MARCH 25: Sebastian Vettel of Germany driving the (5) Scuderia Ferrari SF71H leads Lewis Hamilton of Great Britain driving the (44) Mercedes AMG Petronas F1 Team Mercedes WO9 on track during the Australian Formula One Grand Prix at Albert Park on March 25, 2018 in Melbourne, Australia. (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)

Ferrari and Mercedes have traded jabs throughout the 2018 season, with neither able to pull away from the other so far through seven races.

Sebastian Vettel enters the French Grand Prix with a one-point lead over Lewis Hamilton, and holds a slight edge in victories – three to Hamilton’s two – and comes off a thorough domination of the Canadian Grand Prix.

Vettel led every lap at the Circuit Gilles Villeneuve on his way to victory, while Valtteri Bottas had to carry the Mercedes flag in finishing second. Hamilton languished in fifth, a surprising and disappointing result given his previous success there.

The aforementioned Toto Wolff described it as a “wake up call,” though Mercedes will roll out a power unit upgrade this weekend – Ferrari and Renault, which also powers Red Bull Racing, rolled out upgrades of their own in Canada.

With four long straightaways present at Paul Ricard, power will certainly be at a premium, so such upgrades will be vital in giving Mercedes a chance to make amends after Canada’s disappointment.

Trio of French Drivers Look to Impress on Home Soil

It comes hardly as a surprise that the three French drivers – Romain Grosjean, Pierre Gasly, and Esteban Ocon – are keen to make an impression at their home race.

And all three could certainly use a boost. Gasly has only one finish inside the points (seventh in the Monaco Grand Prix) since his stellar fourth place effort in the Bahrain Grand Prix. Ocon is coming off back-to-back points finishes (sixth in Monaco, ninth in Canada), but he has only one other finish inside the points this year (tenth, in Bahrain). And Grosjean, despite showing the speed to finish in the points, is yet to score any in 2018.

As such, all three are hoping for big things in their home race this weekend.

“I want to get a good weekend, have some luck, get my first points of the season, and get a lot of support from the fans,” said Grosjean. “I think we should be in a nice place at Paul Ricard. I’m always looking forward to jumping back in the car. I just love driving an F1 car.”

Ocon, who has raced and won at Paul Ricard in the past, expects his prior experience could be a big help.

“I did race at Paul Ricard early in my career – it was actually where I had my first victory in single seaters in 2013 so I have some fantastic memories of the place,” Ocon described. “I hope we can add some more success this weekend. Having been there in the junior categories makes getting used to a new track in a Formula One car much easier. I think I will find my rhythm quite quickly.”

Gasly’s excitement level obviously matches that of his French compatriots, with the added bonus that the return coincides with his rookie F1 effort.

“For me it will be absolutely incredible that my first full season of Formula 1 coincides with the return of a French Grand Prix to the calendar for the first time in 10 years,” said Gasly. “That has to be a reason for me to be very happy and I’m really excited to be racing in my home country. I can tell it will be a special feeling going out on track and actually, I have spoken to Jean Alesi and Alain Prost about it and they both told me that it will feel really special and something that you really have to experience as a Frenchman racing in France.”

Qualifying for The French Grand Prix begins at 9:55 a.m. ET on Saturday, with Sunday’s race at 9:30 a.m. ET.

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