Photo: BMW Motorsport

BMW extends with RLL Racing into 2018 ahead of M8 GTE debut

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BMW Motorsport has confirmed BMW Team RLL will continue into 2018, with testing and development of BMW’s new M8 GTE ramping up ahead of the new GTE-spec car’s race debut at the 2018 Rolex 24 at Daytona.

BMW Team RLL engineers and technicians are at BMW Motorsport’s Munich base this week preparing the build of the first U.S. bound-M8 GTE, which will make its first IMSA-sanctioned test at Daytona International Speedway in December, which is open to Prototype and GT Le Mans class machinery. The first car will arrive at the team’s Hilliard, Ohio headquarters in late November and will undergo private testing once it arrives.

The bid for renewal was up this year with other teams understood to have placed bids for the BMW contract, but ultimately the German manufacturer continues with RLL for the latest new car. Bobby Rahal told NBC Sports in July a BMW renewal was something they were targeting, and focused on completing.

This sees the extension of the contract reach a decade, and the M8 GTE follows past builds and developments of the BMW M3 GT, BMW Z4 GTE and BMW M6 GTLM.

“Coming off one of our most successful years together with BMW, I am very pleased that we will continue to work together in the years to come to gain more victories and championships for BMW. This has been a tremendous, long-term relationship that started in 2009 and we are very honored and privileged to represent BMW on the race tracks of North America. An enhanced RLL organization for 2018 will no doubt help in the development and running of the new BMW M8 GTE, which surely is one of the most exciting new cars of 2018.” said Bobby Rahal, Team Principal.

Victor Leleu, BMW of North America Motorsport Manager, added: “The BMW M8 GTE will begin another chapter for BMW Team RLL and we are excited to start testing. Bobby’s team has helped make the M3, Z4 and M6 winners against the best GT competition in the world and we have no doubt that the M8 GTE will follow the same course. As evidenced by our four victories with the M6 GTLM this season and especially the Petit Le Mans win, BMW Team RLL – like good wine – gets better with age.”

The M6 GTLM won four races in its final season in 2017 in IMSA, including the last two of the year and with Bill Auberlen having won in his 400th BMW race at Motul Petit Le Mans. Since 2009, the team has totaled 17 GT class wins among 68 total podium finishes.

BMW’s additional 2018 motorsport plans will get revealed at its annual season review banquet, to be held December 15.

Additionally, the team has confirmed Brandon Fry, formerly Max Chilton’s engineer with Chip Ganassi Racing in IndyCar, as its new technical/racing operations director of the sports car program. That release is below:

Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing (RLL) announced today that veteran engineer Brandon Fry has joined the team as technical and racing operations director of the team’s sports car program. Fry has over 20 years of professional racing experience and was most recently race engineer for Chip Ganassi Racing’s Indy car program with Max Chilton.

“I’m really pleased that Brandon chose to join our team as technical and racing operations director,” said team co-owner Bobby Rahal. “His history of success speaks for itself and I know that he will provide great value to our organization going forward.”

“I was really excited when Bobby called and offered me this opportunity to join Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing,” said Brandon Fry.  “The team has a history of success and I’m looking forward to working with BMW Team RLL as the new BMW M8 GTE is launched for the 2018 IMSA season.”

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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