Photo courtesy of IMSA

IMSA: Motul jumping in with big plans, significant optimism for 2018

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Several partnership announcements revealed during Motul Petit Le Mans weekend perhaps didn’t get as much attention or coverage as they might have had they been revealed prior to or after the weekend. Alas, they’re still worth noting and exploring a bit more.

One of them was Motul, confirmed as the “Official Motor Oil” of the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship, and the IMSA Continental Tire SportsCar Challenge from 2018.

Motul’s lineage in endurance racing dates back to the 24 Hours of Le Mans in the 1950s, and Motul has been active in other forms of motorsport mainly across Europe in recent years.

It hasn’t made as big of a leap into the North American market and the new partnership with IMSA is one where the company is keen to expand its presence here.

“We look at the quality of a championship, and whatever support there is from factories,” Motul USA president Guillame Pailleret told NBC Sports at Petit Le Mans.

“There are not many other series in America with this many factories or companies. There’s 15 to 19 at least, and it’s tremendous. We’re a small company. We’re not an oil company; we focus on performance lubricants. So the range of brands here is a big opportunity for us.”

Within the agreement, Motul has the entitlement rights for the Motul Pole Award for the WeatherTech Championship Prototype (P) and GT Daytona (GTD) classes, as well as all Continental Tire Challenge classes which includes cars eligible for the award running two Motul decals.

In addition to its entitlement of the Motul Petit Le Mans and overall partnership with Road Atlanta, Motul has established partnerships with seven additional WeatherTech Championship venues and events.

Having the title sponsor branding at Petit Le Mans, a race that celebrated its 20th anniversary this year, was Motul’s first proper arrival from an activation standpoint. Petit Le Mans has not enjoyed as much consistency in its title sponsorship role as have the 36 Hours of Florida races, with Rolex (Daytona) and Mobil 1 (Sebring) both entrenched in their roles.

“It’s thrilling really. We’re so proud and honored. It’s a huge deal for us,” Pailleret said.

“As we talked about before, it’s about what are we going to do with it? We’re committed to drive it as much as possible.

“It’s endurance racing… it’s a very different type of environment because there is so much pressure on all the competitors for such a long time. What we can take out of it for us, is the content we can’t see anywhere else. This is why we started in Le Mans in the ‘50s.”

So what, in fact, are Motul’s plans beyond the obvious? Pailleret explains what the company is trying to accomplish within IMSA, a series the company feels is on the rise.

“We’re going to try to activate as much as we can for all races of the calendar. That’s a big deal; it requires a lot of resources. We want to do it right,” he said.

“The second goal is to take it at a consumer level. The goal is to put IMSA and Motul at the consumer level, not just at the trade level.

“We have this weekend, about 200 customers coming from 70 different countries. Just like with Michelin, what we’re doing here isn’t just for North America, but also globally.”

Motul signage in the backdrop of a big crowd pre-grid. Photo courtesy of IMSA

Pailleret also said the education of Motul for a U.S. audience will be key, and he elaborated on the difference between pure motor oil and performance lubricants. Oil is something that isn’t a glamorous topic, per se, but it’s amazing how oil selections can enhance performance within the automotive and motorsports industries.

“It’s really amazing, you touched on a very interesting point,” he said. “There’s a lot of people that work with mechanics, and that don’t know anything about oil, so it’s a challenge. It’s the second biggest challenge we have.

“The first is to get the brand name out there. It’s kind of what we’re doing here. The second is to help our customers understand what oil is all about. It’s a tough challenge to educate, but that’s what we are working on.”

Perhaps the most humorous part of the announcement at Petit Le Mans was that the North American series had back-to-back announcements from French companies, with Motul and Michelin revealing their expanded IMSA plans in the same time frame.

Add in Onroak Automotive, the French outfit but which also has a U.S. arm, which also had one of its Ligier JS P3 show cars present as part of the D3+Transformers Racing team announcement, and you could be forgiven for thinking the Circuit de La Sarthe had voyaged from Le Mans to Braselton, Ga.

“I never thought about (all the French connections) until I met the Ligier and Michelin guys!” Pailleret laughed. “I don’t think of us as being French… although I can’t deny my accent!

“Yes we happen to be here and happen to be French, but the key for us is making it more into North America.”

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.