Despite being only 22 years old (he turns 23 on March 10), Sean Rayhall has endured quite the adventure on his way to becoming a professional racing driver.
He made his racing debut in the Skip Barber Southern Series in 2009 at the age of just 14. He jumped to Legends cars in 2010 and then into the CARS Tour – formerly the USAR Pro Cup Series – in 2011.
He moved into sports cars in 2013, winning a championship in the IMSA Prototype Challenge Presented by Mazda while also contesting the Prototype Challenge class in the American Le Man Series, the latter continuing in the WeatherTech SportsCar Championship in 2014.
Rayhall then tackled open wheel racing in 2015, running a partial schedule in the Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires with 8Star Motorsports, winning twice that year.
And most recently, in 2017, Rayhall jumped across the Atlantic Ocean to Europe, contesting the European Le Mans Series season in a Ligier JS P3 for United Autosports, in which he won the LMP3 class championship with co-driver John Falb.
And now, Rayhall is set for a new opportunity back in the U.S. as a new signee with 3GT Racing for the remaining rounds of the Tequila Patron North American Endurance Cup in the WeatherTech championship.
The new venture, which sees him replace the retired Scott Pruett in the No. 15 Lexus RC F GT3, came about after January’s Rolex 24 at Daytona, where Rayhall was competing with HART in the No. 69 Acura NSX GT3, following what seemed like an informal conversation with 3GT owner Paul Gentilozzi.
“It came about, sure enough, our trailer was parked next to Gentilozzi’s trailer and he came up to me after the race,” Rayhall said. “We got to chatting and he said, ‘Are you signed for the rest of the NAEC?’ I said, ‘No. I think HART wants me, but I’m not really sure what the deal is.’ He said, ‘Don’t sign anything.’ I was like, ‘All right. Why?’ He said, ‘I’ll give you a call this week.'”
Rayhall continued, “(Gentilozzi) gave me a call on Wednesday, had a small talk, and Monday we did a deal. It’s pretty funny how it was just kind of right place, right time. I don’t even know if our trailers weren’t parked together if that would have happened. It’s kind of out of sight, out of mind, but being back in the IMSA paddock has been good to me so far, obviously. I’m just really fortunate to be back here.”
What’s most interesting is that, while Rayhall has driven a wide variety of machinery in his career, GT cars were not on that list prior to this year’s Rolex 24. Rayhall even admitted that other GT opportunities went by the wayside because he hadn’t raced such a platform.
However, his versatility in other areas gives him the confidence that he can quickly wrap his arms around a GT3 car.
“I think the versatility is huge,” he said. “I’ve gotten turned down a lot from some GT opportunities just because I haven’t raced a (GT) car. It’s pretty funny, because it’s like, a car is a car, and if you give me enough time in it, I think any of us are going to figure it out.
“In a prototype, you have a lot to learn how to trust the downforce and how to use it, and how you want to do your brake release and stuff like that. A GT car, there’s like two ways to drive it, and that’s it. You figure it out. You look at data and you take small baby steps to get there.”
Rayhall is also acutely aware of the role he is playing as a replacement for Pruett, one of the most accomplished sports car racers of all time, and he acknowledges that replacing someone of Pruett’s caliber is a tall task.
“The hero, the legend, the greatest of all time in sports cars, Scott Pruett, is stepping out and it’s big shoes to fill,” Rayhall said. “I’m just here to kind of keep it clean and make sure we can fight in the last two hours.”
Rayhall’s IMSA plans add to an already packed 2018 season, which will see him return to the ELMS with John Falb and United Autosports to defend the LMP3 class title, while he also competes in the revamped IMSA Prototype Challenge series with K2R Motorsports. And, as he explained, he is always seeking out new opportunities, even in cars he has never raced.
“I got a call the other week about doing something, and I might try to add one or two (races) here and there,” he said. “On my off weekends, I’m actually talking about going and racing a sprint car by Road America up in Wisconsin.
“I’ve got a deal to possibly run like three nights a weekend on my off weekends. I’m just a racer, man. If I’m not coaching or if I’m not in a race car, I don’t want to be sitting at home on the off weekend. I just want to be at the racetrack.”
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.
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.
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
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.
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.