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IndyCar, IMSA drivers seeking Le Mans glory

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As always, the 24 Hours of Le Mans features a “Who’s Who” of driving talent from around the world, with big names from North America, Europe, and Asia all convening on the Circuit de la Sarthe in hopes of securing one of the biggest crown jewels, and some say THE biggest crown jewel, on the calendar.

And the North American racing scene sports a particularly strong lineup in the 2018 Le Mans, with a host of drivers from the Verizon IndyCar Series and the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship featured.

The biggest collection from IndyCar can be found within Ford Chip Ganassi Racing, which features three current IndyCar drivers.

Scott Dixon joins Ryan Briscoe (himself a former IndyCar driver for Ganassi and Team Penske) and Richard Westbrook in the No. 68 Ford GT – the trio won the GT Le Mans class at the Rolex 24 at Daytona back in January.

Sebastien Bourdais returns to Le Mans after missing last year’s event and partners Dirk Mueller and Joey Hand in the No. 69 entry – this trio won the GTE-Pro class in 2016, the same year the Ford GT debuted at Le Mans.

LE MANS, FRANCE – JUNE 19: The Chip Ganassi Racing Ford GT of Sebastien Bourdais, Joey Hand and Dirk Muller drives during the Le Mans 24 Hour race at the Circuit de la Sarthe on June 19, 2016 in Le Mans, France. (Photo by Ker Robertson/Getty Images)

Also of note: the Nos. 68 and 69 again represent the full-time IMSA entrants, making those entries an IndyCar/IMSA “hybrid” of sorts.

In the team’s entries from the FIA World Endurance Championship, Tony Kanaan joins Harry Tincknell and Andy Priaulx in the No. 67. Of note: Olivier Pla, Stefan Mucke, and Billy Johnson pilot the No. 66.

And former IndyCar driver Mikhail Aleshin will also be competing, with the No.11 SMP Racing BR1-AER entry in the LMP1 class – alongside former F1 driver Vitaly Petrov and 2009 Formula 1 world champion Jenson Button, who makes his Le Mans debut.

Not to be forgotten, IMSA is also well-represented with several of its own stars making the trip to France.

The two most prominent ones from the IMSA faction are likely Acura Team Penske drivers Juan Pablo Montoya and Ricky Taylor.

Taylor is a Le Mans veteran of sorts, as this will be his fifth try at the twice-around-the-clock French enduro. He joins an entry for he Jackie DC Racing team, class winners from last year, in the No. 34 Ligier JS P-217 Gibson alongside Come Ledogar and David Heinemeier Hannson.

Meanwhile, Montoya, the former CART champion and Indianapolis 500 winner, makes his Le Mans debut, piloting the No. 32 Ligier for United Autosports, joining Will Owen and Hugo de Sadeleer.

The most recent IMSA winner, Felipe Nasr, also makes his Le Mans debut, as he partners Roberto Lacorte and Giorgio Sernagiotto in a Dallara P217-Gibson for Cetilar Villorba Corse. Nasr’s Action Express teammate Filipe Albuquerque joins United Autosports in the No. 22 Ligier, partnering Phil Hanson and Paul Di Resta.

And Wayne Taylor Racing’s Renger van der Zande makes his Le Mans debut with DragonSpeed alongside Ben Hanley and Henrik Hedman.

In GTE-Pro, Corvette Racing, as usual, sends their entire fleet to the Circuit de la Sarthe. The American marque has dominated at Le Mans in the 21st century, winning eight times since 2001, the most recent coming in 2015.

Corvette Racing’s last Le Mans triumph came in 2015, with Oliver Gavin, Tommy Milner, and Jordan Taylor.

Both the Nos. 63 and 64 Corvette C7.Rs expect to be among the favorites in GTE-Pro. Jan Magnussen, Antonio Garcia, and Mike Rockenfeller share the No. 63, while the No. 64 is shared by Oliver Gavin, Marcel Fassler, and Tommy Milner.

Porsche GT Team, in the hands of CORE Autosport, also has their IMSA team at Le Mans in the Nos. 93 and 94 efforts, and their driver lineup could be the best one ever assembled for a GT effort, with four overall Le Mans winners represented across both cars.

Nick Tandy, Patrick Pilet, and Earl Bamber will pilot the No. 93, with Timo Bernhard, Romain Dumas, and Sven Muller in the No. 94.

BMW Team RLL driver’s Alexander Sims also heads over with the BMW Team MTEK group, partnering Augusto Farfus and Antonio Felix da Costa in the No. 82 M8 GTE.

And Risi Competizione’s Toni Vilander, Alessandro Pier Guidi and James Calado will be competing as well with AF Corse. Vilander partners Antonio Giovinazzi and IMSA star Pipo Derani in the No. 52 488 GTE, while Calado and Pier Guidi join Daniel Serra in the No. 51.

The GTE-Am class is also populated with IMSA standouts. Cooper MacNeil and Jeff Segal share the No. 84 Ferrari 488 GTE for JMW Motorsport with Liam Griffin. Keating Motorsports heads over with IMSA commodities Ben Keating and Jeroen Bleekemolen alongside Luca Stolz.

Two-time IMSA GT Daytona champion Christina Nielsen  will be behind the wheel of a Porsche for Ebimotors – she joins Fabio Babini and Erik Maris in the No. 80 entry.

And Proton Competition might be the biggest sleeper in the GTE-Am class, with two-time class winner Patrick Long anchoring a lineup with Spencer Pumpelly, a Porsche stalwart himself, and Tim Pappas.

And don’t forget about Fernando Alonso’s exploits with Toyota Gazoo Racing in the LMP1 category – he shares the No. 8 TS050 Hybrid with Sebastien Buemi and Kaz Nakajima, while Mike Conway, Kamui Kobayashi, and Jose Maria Lopez pilot the No. 7 entry.

It all adds up to a genuinely star-studded field across LMP1, LMP2, GTE-Pro, and GTE-Am.

Other notables include: Andre Lotterer and Neel Jani, former overall Le Mans winners, in the No. 1 Rebellion Racing R13-Gibson with Bruno Senna. Nicolas Lapierre, who won the Mobil 1 12 Hours of Sebring with Tequila Patron ESM, partners Andre Negrao and Pierre Thiriet in the Signatech Alpine A470-Gibson.

And other American hopefuls include Tracy Krohn (No. 44 Eurasia Motorsport Ligier, with Nic Jonsson and Andrea Bertolini) and 2016 LMP2 class winner Gustavo Menezes (No. 3 Rebellion Racing R13, with Thomas Laurent and Mathias Beche).

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Mario Andretti says Colton Herta could be next American star in F1

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Mario Andretti’s last Formula One victory is also the last by an American driver in more than 42 years on the international open-wheel road racing series.

If you had told Andretti that while he was celebrating on the Grand Prix of the Netherlands podium on Aug. 27, 1978 at the Vandzoort circuit, he wouldn’t have believed it.

“Absolutely not,” Andretti told Kyle Petty during the most recent “Coffee With Kyle” episode (video above). “It’s a shame. Somehow we have so much talent here, and either there’s no invitation or something there. But I think it’s time to give some of this young talent that, in my opinion, is absolutely capable.”

The Dutch GP was the last of Andretti’s 12 victories in F1 and came during his championship season. No one since has come close to matching his success in F1.

Mario Andretti drives his Lotus-Ford to victory in the 1978 Grand Prix of the Netherlands (Bernard Cahier/Getty Images).

Andretti’s son, Michael, took a full-time ride with McLaren in 1993 but left with three races remaining in a season marred by crashes and mechanical problems.

Scott Speed was the last American to run a full F1 season in 2006, and Alexander Rossi made the most recent F1 start by a U.S. driver in 2015. Rossi has said he has no desire to return to racing in Europe after winning the 2016 Indianapolis 500 and becoming an IndyCar championship contender.

But Mario Andretti believes Andretti Autosport has another rising star with F1-caliber ability.

“Colton Herta is one that comes to mind,” Mario Andretti said. “As a young lad, his dad sent him to Europe, he was doing Formula 3, and he knows most of the circuits there. He’s trained. He’s showed in his rookie season and won some premium races at COTA (and Laguna Seca), beat two of the very best Indy has to offer (in) Will Power and Scott Dixon.

“This is one kid I’d love to see him get a break over there to fly the U.S. colors again.”

Herta, 20, seems interested in exploring an F1 leap over the next few years. After winning Sept. 13 at Mid-Ohio from the pole position (his third career victory in the NTT IndyCar Series), the No. 88 Dallara-Honda driver is ranked fourth in the standings in his sophomore year and regarded as one of the series’ top prospects.

Herta recently told RACER.com “I’d love to give Formula 1 a crack” but said he also would be happy driving in IndyCar and IMSA.

A naturalized U.S. citizen who told Petty about spending several years with his family in an Italian refugee camp before coming to America, Mario Andretti said F1 brought an enormous sense of patriotic pride.

“Formula One is like the Olympics in a sense,” he said. “You’re in a different country, a different continent. When you earn that highest step of the podium, they play your national anthem. That’s when you take nothing for granted. You feel like I’m representing my country, and the proudest moments are those.

“I’d just like to see some other American drivers experience that. It’s time.”

Mario Andretti with four-time NASCAR champion Jeff Gordon and six-time Formula One champion Lewis Hamilton before the Nov. 22, 2015 season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway (Jared C. Tilton/NASCAR via Getty Images).

During the “Coffee With Kyle” conversation, Andretti also discussed:

–His versatility as a winner in IndyCar, sports cars, NASCAR and Formula One;

–His 1967 Daytona 500 victory and how he enjoyed racing with crew chief Jake Elder at the famed Holman-Moody team;

Mario Andretti Colton Herta
Mario Andretti and Kyle Petty saluted “The King” by wearing their Richard Petty-style hats during the latest “Coffee With Kyle” (NBCSN).

–Why he delayed his entry to F1 for a few years because of his earnings power in IndyCar. “I always say I’d race for free, but at the same time, you’re thinking of family and the future,” he said. “It was in the back of your mind that you can’t give up the earning power of IndyCar. That kept me from going full time in Formula One, but I always said that sometime in my career, I’d have to devote a period to Formula One.”

–On what it was like racing in an era when driver deaths were more prevalent. “If you’re going to do this, you’re not going to dwell on those negatives,” Andretti said. “There’s no way. You knew it was present. Especially in the ‘60s at the beginning of the season at the drivers meetings, you couldn’t help but look around and say, ‘I wonder who is not going to be here at the end of the season.’ We’d lose four to five guys. In ’64, we lost six guys.

“It’s something if you dwell on that, you’re going to take on a different profession. It’s a desire and love to want to drive that overcame all that and then the confidence it’s not going to happen to me. And then you pray.”

Watch the full “Coffee With Kyle” episode in the video above or by clicking here.

Mario Andretti looks on before the 103rd Indianapolis 500 on May 26, 2019 (Chris Graythen/Getty Images).