Rayhall: Maximizing the weekend at legendary Spa

Photo courtesy United Autosports
0 Comments

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.

His fifth blog looks at how he and the team made the most of the weekend at the legendary Spa-Francorchamps, en route to a surprise podium (previous blogs are linked here; SilverstoneLe MansRed Bull Ring, Paul Ricard).

So we arrived in Belgium on a Thursday. Well, John’s flight was delayed. So, I arrived and got plenty acquainted with the airport and found out that at Brussels, if you exit the airport, you can’t get back in without another flight ticket. On the bright side, they do have a nice patio outside for those people like me who walked out unknowingly. John made it eventually and we were all set to head to the legendary Circuit Spa-Francorchamps.

Friday went great, starting with John going P1 in the Bronze (driver rating) test and us being P3 the end of FP1, which we felt really good about especially for our pace on old tires in FP2! So we felt pretty confident that even if we don’t have the fastest car on outright pace, we will have a great race car for the four-hour race. That’s what has been paying off for us this year!

Qualifying went well, and we ended up P3 which was good considering people were doing different things for downforce for just qualifying and we just left our race setup on and sent it!

So the starts at Spa are always pretty crazy (see above). There are 38 cars, three different classes, and all different categories of drivers at the start depending on independent team strategies, and we’re all going flat out down a short straight into a first gear hairpin… so chaos should be expected.

The rule stated in the drivers meeting was that you’re not allowed to pop or pass until the bridge, which is the second line on the front straightaway.

When the green dropped, the LMP2 car (the No. 29 Racing Team Nederland and No. 49 High Class Racing Dallara P217s were on the final row of the LMP2 grid, with the No. 29 car directly ahead of the LMP3 class polesitter -Ed.) in front of our LMP3 class polesitter (Mikkel Jensen) got an awful start. By following the rules I had to stay behind Jensen, but that also meant I had dropped down to sixth place by the time we got to the bridge.

By the time Turn 1 was sorted, I’d remained on damage control and tried to protect the car… but I came out P10. No action was taken on the cars that we thought had jumped the start.

When you’re in a position to win the championship, there are some race situations where it can be difficult to balance your inner racer’s desire to push hard early versus waiting and letting the race come to you.

Basically you have two options: you can risk it for a win and risk a penalty, or you can take the humble pie, and wait it out. The humble pie was tasting terrible, by the way, until about four hours later when the checkered flag flew.

I began to work my way through the field getting to sixth, before I had a tough battle with (Giorgio) Mondini. He proceeded to try to wreck me on four different occasions. One of those included driving me off the track in brake zones and bending the suspension on our car while ripping dive plains off. He eventually wrecked Theo Bean in another car, which took him out of the race and put us back to P10.

So again, it was full reset right here. We just needed to get points, and I could see the cars we were battling for in the championship ahead, so I just put my head down and made the best of a bent race car. You can take your best shot at commentating my radio communication, but I’m pretty sure all of our United Autosports crew’s ears were hurt by my rant…

As the race played out there were many safety car periods which took out about an hour of the drive time I was allocated, but as he has all season, John Falb drove flawlessly for two hours. We were eighth after the first hour and fourth at the end of the second hour, but John pushed us forward in the final two hours as he brought us up to third place, in tandem with great work from the team.

It was truly impressive watching him take to a bent car and navigate his way through in a mega stint, which ended up giving us third place and a bigger points lead!

I can’t thank John Falb, United Autosports, and all our sponsors enough for all their hard work. As a team, we performed perfectly while everything that could go wrong went wrong, which is what champions are made of. This could be a day we look back on think how we achieved as best we could in spite of adversity.

Even on our worst day we stood on the podium in an ELMS race at Spa. That is special!

See you guys in a month post-Portimao! We will be playing for keeps there!

Photo courtesy United Autosports

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

Jenson Button NASCAR Le Mans
Getty Images
0 Comments

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.”